Sarah Sterman

A Point In Time

Heat bakes the little plateau in summer; winter is not much colder. Scrubby plants grow in the sandy soil, hanging on to moisture in the not-quite desert. Here, a ring of stones is the remains of an ancient civilization. The suggestion is not the fancy of a daydreaming child. But for the untrained eye, it is hard to tell which of the plain stones are just stones, and which hold great stores of knowledge. As the survey group travels up and down the plateau, there are many questions and stops to check accuracy. But the Park Service has limited funds for this area, so these ignorant volunteers are accepted gladly for the short time they will be there.

Now a ranger walks back to the child who is holding out a chunk of stone. A few feet away, he stops and lifts up a piece of deep red stone, so different from the grey, pocked rocks native to the plateau. It is like half of a painted egg; so smooth, except for one jagged, broken side. “Look at this,” he says. “See, it is half of a mano. They must have traded for the stone, it’s not from around here.”

The child is fascinated, but the hand holding the grey rock droops. A few more feet and she could have found it, found something worthwhile. The ranger looks at her stone, and says that it is just a stone. They keep on going. A shape in the grass startles the child. She steps back quickly, her heart beating faster. She calls to the adults for instructions. After waiting for the rattlesnake to pass, she skirts the dry, yellowed grass where it had laid. The group of three continues on, spread apart, eyes sweeping the ground in front of them. Reaching a dry streambed, the ranger shows them a plant with purple flowers and an edible bulb. They each try a piece, then go down the slope and up the other bank.

As they go a little farther, the vegetation gets a little thicker. They find a ring of stones, an old campsite. Scattered around are broken metates and fragmented manos. The ranger explains that the Yavapai destroyed whatever they could not carry when they moved to a new area. But after the line has walked a little farther, the child pauses. Something is darker than the shadow it lies in. She crouches down and reaches under the bush. An obsidian point lies in her hand, an inch long and perfectly formed except for the very tip, which has been broken off. Glancing around again, she sees a tiny shard of brown pottery, marked with deep vertical lines. The obsidian sits lightly in her palm, a deep, mysterious black. Her fingers stroke the stone, amazed that it could still be here, after all those hundreds of years, just lying in the dust, waiting. Arrowheads were made for killing, but she can’t imagine this beautiful shape ever causing harm.

Finally, she calls out, and the others converge on her, talking while the obsidian point reflects the sunbeams, lying once again in a human hand, a part of the past and the future and the present of the silent desert.


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