The Things That Matter

The Stones She Carries

(Sean McCormick)
By Marie Arana
Sunday, December 2, 2007

WHEN I WAS 6, MAYBE 7, A MAN WHO WORKED FOR MY PARENTS HANDED ME A CLOD OF EARTH. It fit perfectly in the well of my hand. I could see it was rock, but he called it dirt. This is the dust of your ancestors, he said. It was black, lustrous, dense beyond anything I'd seen on that sandy stretch of the Peruvian coast, where my engineer father was raising cane and converting it into paper. Take it, Antonio said. Keep it. Put it where it can watch you while you sleep and mind you when you wake. It is, like you, a child of Pachamama. We come from dirt, and it is to dirt we'll all return.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust!" my mother echoed, nodding vigorously and confirming Antonio's every word. She was blond, blue-eyed -- a reader of King James, a stranger in my father's country -- but she seemed to understand the world as the gardener knew it, and she would flash a radiant smile of approval whenever she saw me squatting outside, listening to Antonio talk as he turned the earth and made things grow.

Antonio would tell me of faith that seemed as old as the land itself -- of Pachamama, the soil from which all life had sprung. He spoke of the glory of every stalk of green around me. He said that my greatest power would come when I died, because it was from death -- from the disintegration of flesh, the rot of trees, the dust of great civilizations -- that seeds would sprout and life would leap once more. He talked about how time could harden a man, harden the earth, make it stone, then grind it all to a fine, white sand. So it was there, in that fragrant school of my garden, on that faraway paper hacienda where my father worked marvels as a modern-day engineer, that I learned something about science and faith.

Many years later, when I was well into middle age with children of my own, I returned with my father to that factory town by the sea. My parents by then had moved to Colombia, Brazil and France and had settled, finally, in the suburbs of Washington; and I, a peripatetic soul myself, had come there to work as a book editor. Suddenly, in the throes of writing a memoir, I needed to return to Peru, see that garden again, find Antonio. My father, a spry 77, cheerfully agreed to go along.

But the hacienda to which we returned in the mid-1990s was a shadow of the paradise I remembered. Peru was emerging from a decade of terror, and the Shining Path guerrillas had carved a deep wound in the countryside. The house in which I grew up was abandoned. The garden was a parched tangle of vines. No one in the desperately poor mud huts of Paramonga could tell me what had become of Antonio. So many had died, they said, or fled -- east, toward the sanctuary of the Andes.

I stood for a long time in that little garden, while my father was off -- as he so often had been -- at the factory, surveying the whirling steel as it resurrected sugar cane into crisp paper. I squatted down and trailed a finger in the dirt, trying to recall the aroma of jasmine, verbena and banana that Antonio had coaxed from those unforgiving dunes. All of a sudden, I caught sight of a small black stone at the foot of a dead bougainvillea. I walked over, picked it up. It fit comfortably in the well of my hand. When I wiped away the dust, it beamed up at me. I slipped it into my purse.

I've carried stones ever since.

Within a month, I was pulling a hunk of quartz from the front walk of my grandfather's Wyoming ranch house. My mother's father had been dead for more than 20 years, and the interior of that house had been transformed by the current tenant to the spitting image of a cozy German alpenhaus. But the old porch was the same, my grandfather's trucks were still parked in the road, and I held his rifle to my shoulder when my cousin took me out to shoot dinner. I had been 6, maybe 7, when Grandpa Doc had first put that rifle in my hands and taught me how to shoot a soup can from 50 feet -- the distance I'd need to put between myself and my quarry. We'd come from Peru to visit, and my sister, Vicki, my brother, George, and I had transformed ourselves overnight from prim little Peruvians into rollicking, gun-slinging buckaroos.

Grandpa Doc taught me how to take a rock, put it in a pot of beans and leave it simmering over a low campfire so that every bean could reach its perfect modality of succulence. He taught me how to skip stones over water, how to put pebbles in my mouth and learn to pronounce English like a native. He taught me how to watch a sunset, how to walk through the night unafraid. And when my grandmother died during our visit and I sat on the porch, holding his hand, I wondered how life would ever spring again from the shards of his broken heart.

To those samples of quartz and rock, I have since added a number of other amulets: A petrified chestnut from a footpath in Ann Arbor, down which my 18-year-old son walked toward college and manhood. A lump of speckled granite I found on a beach on a Marine base in Hawaii, where my daughter's first child was born. A seashell handed to me by one of my colleagues in a moment of much-needed solidarity and friendship. These bits and pieces toss fitfully in my purse, gathering company -- one dead little relic glancing against another, from which I hope life will spring.

Not that such hope is unusual. For my cousins in Peru, hope might come from a well-rubbed rosary kept in a handy corner of a night table. For my father's hard-drinking friend, Colifa, it was a string of worry beads, which he claimed represented his heaviest sins: all 28 of them. Whenever he visited our house -- occasions my mother would say heralded trouble -- I'd make him take those sins from his pocket and place their sad weight in my hands.

Perhaps we mortals have always been carriers of earth, worshipers of rock. In the Norselands, from which my mother's ancestors hail, the Vikings fashioned rune stones and inscribed them with memories of the dead. In England, from which more of her relatives came, there is the mystery of Stonehenge; in Ireland, the druid stones. In Scotland, there is the old Gaelic blessing: "Cuiridh mi clach air do ch¿rn," "I'll place a stone on your pile" -- a parting phrase Antonio might have launched with a happy smile. In Cuzco, the Inca lugged boulders for miles to create temples on top of which Spaniards would build their churches. China's legendary Monkey King, the trickster god, was hatched from a stone, and he could outwit everything he encountered. Except death.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company