Back to the Riverbed

Julia Silbert '18
Mama’s home had been carved out of the mountain, itself. Even with piñon and firewood burning in the hearth and illuminating the windows, the place was so still that one hardly thought it was more than a rock. The door, which looked as if Mama had reached up, plucked a turquoise rectangle from the sky, and nailed it down, could be mistaken for some far-off ravine. The mountain-face had long ago pushed up from the earth and formed a hollow dome, a geode concealing a person and all her treasures.

I came in, accompanied by a small gust of snow. When she saw me, Mama took off her shawl and laid it down, and I handed her a crate of minerals for her to examine. She sat the mother-of-pearl down on the shawl and organized the rest: honeycomb calcite, lapis, wonderstone, fossilized ivory, labradorite, and fishrock. She kept a pair of glasses on the tip of her nose, but I knew her hands were doing most of the work; they cupped into a soft vessel designed to test each stone’s weight, angles, and roughness. She made notes. Before anything had been marked or cut into, she rested on her knees and felt the creatures pleading with her to free them from the stone. I looked on in silence as Mama assembled a twinkling scape of stones and paper notes.

I was born way up in the Zuni Mountains to a woman who carved fetish. Each stone animal had a healing purpose and entrusted their spirit to the person who held it. She did not make them for the material profit. She made them to give life to the memory of our ancestors.

I brought her chisel. As if an invisible thread were guiding her hands, Mama played the instrument of her stone and chisel, and the music was sensational. In measures, a corn maiden, with rosy-orange clothing, emerged from the calcite. She made divots for the maiden’s eyes and mouth, which would later be inked black as if her spirit kindled. The maiden’s frock, too, would be embellished with a chip of turquois shaped like a corn kernel where her heart should be and primroses at the ends of her shirtsleeves.

Mama’s fingers were unusually long and nimble, so when the arthritis crept into their joints, they quivered, and she could not keep them as solidly pressed against the chisel’s wooden handle. Her knuckles bulged like knots in delicate boughs and clicked as she worked. Nevertheless, she would persist for as long as she could, until the artist’s gears had been so smoothed by time they did not quite fit together.
Most of the pieces she sold were carved of stone imported from across the country. But, her personal work was made of stones native to New Mexico, found in the labyrinth of riverbeds rushing across the reservation that deposited Apache tears in the sands that ran abreast. She would dig her fingers into the mud. And, in the same way the spirits called to her from inside their stones, they called to her from deep under, too. Our more recent trips to the riverbeds proved unsuccessful. I suppose her fingers had become numb to the pull of the stones.

One day in early winter, Mama handed me empty crates and instructed me to line them with newspaper and fill them with fetish. She would not tell me why. Each surface of the house had been populated with fetish, so the thought of their being empty was deeply saddening. It felt as if I were stashing away her life’s chronicles. To me, she had imbued the menagerie with her own vitality; they had been forged at her hands, but I knew she disagreed. I knew she believed those spirits to be trapped in that stone, and she believed she had failed because all the stone in the world left untouched meant all the spirits that could not be liberated.

I followed her down the promontory road to the riverbed at the base of the mountain. She placed each fetish in the riverbed and said a prayer. First, she set down a jet wolf, for they are pathfinders and would lead the rest in their return back to the earth. Next, she placed a fishrock bison with a turquoise heart-line amongst the dark pebbles the water had tumbled smooth. He would teach the others endurance. She placed them where she thought they would have no conflict, one by one: the hummingbird, who stops time, the otter, who brings laughter to others, the bear, who embodies introspection and spirituality, and finally the corn maiden, who would never let any one spirit languish.

I understood she was parting with her craft, and having been there in that moment, I could tell it was saying its farewells, too.

-2017 Chapbook

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