Adam tried to be silent as possible as his eight-year-old hands dug through cardboard treasure chests of antiques. Up in his grandparents’ attic, Adam could spend hours traveling through time with the ancient toys and clothes he found there. The musty smell of mothballs and small clouds of dust shrouded Adam as he rummaged past wooden tennis rackets, snow globes from Hawaii vacations, and photo albums with faded, pastel pictures. But then, Adam saw a blue and green gem buried in a cardboard box he thought he had exhausted. He brushed his brown hair from his eyes, and began to reach for the shiny treasure he had uncovered. It was then he heard the attic door creak and realized Grandpa would end Adam’s excavation, so he quickly snatched the gem and put the apple-sized find into his pocket.
“I don’t know how you can leave your video games and the television behind for the old junk we keep up here, Adam. What have you found this time?” his grandfather asked, spilling in light from the warm house behind him.
“Oh, nothing…” Adam said, hoping to examine his treasure without a hassle in the safety of the guest bedroom, his excavation headquarters.
“That bulge in your pocket says otherwise, what’d you got, son?” Grandpa said as he exposed the orb from Adam’s pocket with swiftness contrasting a typical grandfather’s.
The glassy sphere reflected the light from the attic’s small windows and from the open door behind the boy and his grandfather, casting shards of blue and green light onto the attic’s nail-ridden, wooden walls and their cobwebs.
“I see you found our earth!” Grandpa explained, anxious to explain its significance with a touch of apprehension. Adam could tell this was going to be quite a tale from Grandpa, and longed to find something in the attic that would distract Grandpa from his impending story.
“Have a seat with me, my boy! I’ll tell you all about how special, beautiful, and tenacious this little earth can be,” Grandpa said as he pulled Adam onto his knee.
There was no escape now, Adam thought, as he let out a sigh of forfeit.
“This is our earth, and we are right…here!” he explained to Adam, pointing to a small section of the emerald inset on the orb.
“I know that,” Adam said frustrated, “I’m in the third grade.”
Grandpa laughed, “Oh fine, fine. But! Did you know that this orb right here is alive? And that each day, the earth changes, just like you and me?”
Adam did not respond, embarrassed that he had not learned this information in his advanced years of schooling, and sensing that Grandpa was not nearly done explaining. “The sun shines on this round, marble everyday, and the moon drags the blue water up and down the green land, changing the shape each time. Did you know that?” Grandpa said, still not waiting for Adam’s answer.
“And I want to give this earth to you, Adam,” Grandpa said.
This was something interesting now, Adam thought, realizing he would be getting a glittery toy as a reward for listening to Grandpa talk and talk.
“But you have to promise me that you will take care of it, and that you’ll follow the instructions,” he said.
“Instructions?” Adam asked, recalling the marbles he found in this attic earlier in the year, which needed no instruction at all, “What does this thing need instructions for?”
Grandpa smiled and started to explain, excited that his grandson was interested in what he had to say, “Well, the earth can take care of itself, you know. But because you and I and
everyone else on the earth take things from it, we have to balance it out somehow, pay it back in a way,” he explained.
“Oh, is this like a piggy bank? I don’t see a slot on it, Grandpa,” Adam responded, grabbing the fragile orb from Grandpa’s weathered hands.
“Be careful! And no, it’s not like a bank. The earth can’t be tended with just money, Adam; it takes patience, discipline, and smarts,” Grandpa said.
“What kind of smarts?” Adam asked, anxious to prove his third grade intelligence, and to get his new toy.
“All sorts of smarts, really. But to understand the earth, you have to understand that it works perfectly fine on its own.” Grandpa took the blue-green treasure from his grandson’s hands, putting it into one of his cupped hands and putting his other out to his other side. “Everything on earth is balanced: leaves die in the winter so they can flourish again in the summer. Water evaporates so it can rain down again. And when an animal dies, its body nourishes the earth so there can be food for other animals, who then reproduce more animals. There is a cycle and a balance.”
Grandpa, motioning his hands in circles while still holding the earth as he talked about cycles, explained further: “This good ol’ earth works just fine on its own, until you or I don’t follow the instructions!”
Adam still did not understand what he meant by instructions. If it did not come with batteries or game pieces, why would a toy need instructions?
“Well, what are they then? What do I have to do?” Adam asked, noticing how pretty the orb was when Grandpa would move it around like that, scattering more light around the room as it moved.
“You have to be mindful of how you use the earth, Adam,” Grandpa said. “You can’t just use up all the water or mess with the animals, you need to understand the cycles.”
Adam was fine with that, he thought, because he could never use up all the water in the world, and he did not care so much for animals other than his grandparent’s cat.
“Okay, I can do that, thanks Grandpa,” Adam said as he lunged for the orb.
“Not yet!” Grandpa said, pulling the orb away and towards the darkness of the attic. “I need you to promise this to me, Adam. I left this orb to your father when he was a little older than you are now, and he did not follow the instructions. I don’t want you to do the same.”
“What did Dad do, Grandpa?” Adam asked.
“He was careless. He would let other people abuse the earth, taking things from it without returning it, and continuously ruining it with their garbage and waste,” Grandpa responded, his voice mellowing and head lowering with sadness. “I had to take it back from your father, he had been so foolish that I couldn’t trust him with it anymore.”
“I won’t let that happen Grandpa,” Adam said with his gaze fixed on his soon-to-be treasure, which was only a promise away in his mind. “I promise.”
Grandpa looked up at his grandson, hopeful that the boy meant it. “I need you to make another promise though, my boy,” he said. “You need to promise to keep the balance, even when it’s easier not to. You have to promise me that, Adam. No matter how badly you want to take everything the earth has for you, you must not abuse it.”
Grandpa lifted the orb to his wrinkled face, “This thing is irreplaceable, Adam. There is only one earth.”
Adam realized this toy was going to be different than his other ones. He had to change the batteries on his Gameboy and he occasionally lost a TechDeck or two, but this was going to
be different. “I promise, Grandpa. I’ll take care of the earth,” Adam said slowly, putting out two careful hands toward his grandfather.
With that, Grandpa looked at the orb he was holding one last time, recalling the instance he had passed it on before. He saw the tarnishes on the blue-green treasure that had been caused by his son’s carelessness, and the irreversible wear on the orb’s gloss coating. Then he looked at his grandson, full of youth and risk. His upturned hands showed dirt and dust, but his face showed sincerity and promise. He had no choice, really, but to trust his grandson with this hand-me-down. He placed the round gift into Adam’s hands, who drew the earth into his chest and stared at his new possession as Grandpa lifted him off his lap and they headed toward the door. Adam looked up and led his grandfather out of the attic. “I promise,” he repeated and smiled.