Monday, August 12, 2013

The Point

Yesterday, near Round Mountain in Utah, I found a jagged stone struck by many tiny blows, leaving behind the trace of the human being who had met and shaped it. It wasn't a perfect arrowhead--part of the bottom was missing--but still I held it in my hand, wonderingly. All my life I've hoped to find arrowheads, or "points" as they are known by those who study them seriously; but rarely have I had much luck. In fact, I've noticed that I am luckiest at finding points when I'm not really looking for them.

Now let me tell you a story:

Many years ago, around the turn of the millennium, I was living on a large ranch in the Texas hill country near Austin. The ranch had been set aside by the university there as a place for writers to be left in peace to do their work, and I had been lucky enough to win a fellowship which allowed me to live in the ranch house and on the grounds for half a year, all alone but for the limestone cliffs and the blowing grass and the animals that came to peek in at the windows. When I wasn't writing, I wandered the hills and bluffs and creeks, my  nose pointed downward, because I knew Native Americans had once lived on the land, and there must be signs, artifacts. But all I found were jagged bits of rock that could have been anything, that looked more like accidents than intention.

One day as I sat at my desk writing, a pick-up truck crossed the creek, pulling up to the ranch house, and two men in workers' jumpsuits jumped out and came knocking on the door. One was small and polite and explained to me that they had come to check on the well. (Writers are not expected to care for the Paisano Ranch; most would have no idea how to do so.) The other man was tall and bitter-looking and rudely crushed his cigarette out under his heel on the porch right in front of me, giving me a look that said, plain as day, Yeah, you arty types. You think you're special, look down on the likes of us, I bet, but you can't even take care of your own backyard.

I tried to undo his thoughts, thanking both men profusely for the work they were about to do and smiling and explaining how appreciative I was; but the taller man turned a cold shoulder on me as the smaller man walked to the well house. I went back to writing for a while, and then came out to see if they needed anything. The polite young man was still there, by the well pump, but his angry partner was nowhere in sight.

"Is your friend okay?" I asked.

"Mike? He's fine. He went off looking for points."

My heart jumped. I stayed inside until I saw him coming back, then ran out.

"I hear you know how to look for arrowheads!"

He looked stealthily at me. "No. Can't do that here. Wouldn't be legal for me."

"Oh," I slumped, disappointed. "It's just . . .  Well, all my life I've wanted to find an arrowhead. I've been looking since I was a kid. But I've never found one. And I've looked and looked and looked all around here, too."

His face changed slightly. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah . . . You find them, sometimes?"

"Sure, all the time. You just have to know where to look," he said, a little superior now.

"I envy you. I've found a few things, but I don't think they're anything. I keep them on the desk. I don't suppose you'd be willing to look and tell me if . . ."

"Well. I guess I could come in and take a look."

He sifted through my little pile of chipped agates. "No, these ain't anything. But this here could be a scraper." He held it up to the light of the window, impressed. "It sure could. You should keep looking."

"Really? If only I knew where to look, how to look."

He put the stone down and left the house, quickly. "You just go look along the limestone bluffs. By the creek. Look for old fires. Signs of burning. Look for middens. Piles of waste. That's all I can tell you."

"Okay. Thanks."

They left, and for days, for weeks, I did as he instructed. I looked along the creek, I tried to find signs of work and habitation and discard. I scoured the earth--but I couldn't find anything. I could not see what he so clearly saw.

A week or so before I was, sadly, scheduled to leave the ranch, the two men came again to look at the well. The polite one came to the door, but the gruff one, Mike, did not.

"Oh, he's off lookin' for something again," his partner said. "Cheers him up."

I went back inside. A little while later I heard a knock on the door, and opened it, and tall Mike was there.

"So here," he said. "See?"

And he held out the most perfectly sculpted, elongated, bone-colored spear point I had ever seen.

"Oh," I said wistfully. "Oh. That is so beautiful. Wow."

"It's for you."

"Excuse me?"

"You take it."


"Take it. It's a good one. It's about 10,000 years old. It ain't from around here," he said quickly. "I brought it for you."

"What are you talking about? It's yours. You found it."

"It's no big deal. I got hundreds. I brought you something else, too."

He reached around, and from his back pocket took out a neat yellow bandanna, unfolding it. On it was printed the outline and shape of every kind of major point to be found in Texas, he explained to me, along with the proper name written underneath. So now, he said, when I went out point-hunting, I could wear it, and check the stones I found, to see if I had really found anything at all.

I was speechless. I stared at his sun-worn, smoke-worn face.

"These are the most beautiful gifts anyone has ever given me," I said, and I meant it.


"I have to hug you now. Get ready."

We held each other for a long moment, two seekers.

"Okay. You just keep going," he said roughly as he left. "Don't give up, now."

The truck pulled away. I left the ranch the next week. And I never saw the point hunter again.

I keep the stone he gave me on my desk, and the bandanna in the drawer beside it, ready.

Not long ago, hiking in the desert at Joshua Tree, in California, I had given up again. I climbed over a little bluff, and at the crest of it a gust of wind blew up and knocked dust into my eyes. I had to stop and duck my head and wipe the grit out. As I bent, I saw something lying on the ground. A spear tip, long, bone-colored, pointed to where I had not been looking.


Author of The Deadwood Beetle and The Medusa Tree

Friday, April 12, 2013

"What Are You Afraid Of?"

A story from American Stories NOW is now available at your magazine stand . . .
Check out the May 2013 issue of Reader's Digest . . .

(and yes that's me walking the slack-line :-)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Persimmon Tree

Tonight I heard a story. The interesting thing--well, there are two interesting things--well, no, there are so many interesting things, on any given evening, in any place in the world, American or otherwise--the interesting thing among many interesting things is that it did not seem, immediately, like a story. The funny thing--not ha-ha funny, but isn't-that-curious funny, isn't that just what you might expect, but you didn't, funny--is that I was about to get up in front of an audience and tell a story myself. I was in Columbus, Georgia, getting ready to read a strange and haunting tale, when a woman I knew walked in with a woman I didn't, whom I had only just met. I knew the two were sisters--that much I knew--and I greeted them both. They sat down. We chatted while the rest of the audience found its places. What are you doing tomorrow? I asked. We are going to see our mother in her rest home, they said. How old is your mother? I asked. She is 91 years old. My goodness, I said, 91. How is her mind? Well, she knows who we are . . . and she knows when her mind isn't working properly. She's very aware when it isn't and she'll look quite amazed and smile and she'll say, "You know, someone really ought to try to get into my mind and study it and see what on earth is going on there."

Then, without really deciding that we were all listening to a story together, the sisters told me that their mother knew when something wasn't quite right about the way her mind worked, these days, and that she tried to describe it.

"My mind is so focused. It's strange. I keep coming back to the same thing over and over. I keep seeing the persimmon tree by our house when I was a little girl," she said. "I'm so focused."

The sisters do some quick caculations in front of me. Their mother would have been no more than ten years old when she lived beside that tree. At ten, she and the family had moved away from that house.

"But my mind keeps going back that persimmon tree, I tell you. I don't know why. I never thought about it much when we were living there. I never ate its fruit. I never climbed it. I never played around it. I never thought about it at all. It was just a tree. Now I think about it all the time. My mind goes there. It just goes, I can't stop it. Why, why am I thinking about that persimmon tree?"

The audience had all found their seats and it was time for me to tell my story. As it happens, this particular story is about an elderly woman whose mind is doing some very strange things, and as I am telling the story, a little part of my mind is caught, like a small paper kite, in that persimmon tree. I keep seeing the persimmon tree, as if it is growing straight out of the center of the audience. I notice, with that part of my mind that knows how to do these things while another part of my mind is doing something else, that everyone in that audience is gathered around that persimmon tree, a persimmon tree that we did not even know existed, and maybe did not even exist anymore, except that it did, because memory had turned it into a living, growing thing that had sprouted inside and then outside the brain of an old woman, who had connected it to two daughters, who had carried it like a cutting into this space where it rooted and grew in a place with no soil, where it grew in thin air.

And I thought, unable to tear my mind from the persimmon tree: here is a story about a persimmon tree. Except it really isn't a story at all. It is nothing really. Just a whisper, a snatch of conversation, a way to fill the time before a real, published story began.

And while I told my own story, my finished and published story, printed and bound story, behaving like it was the most solid thing in the world, outside it began to rain, and the rain caught in the trees and made a sound like a kite trying to get free.

And the sisters were nodding and giving me all their attention, and so was everyone, very nicely, in this audience in Columbus, Georgia, and I realized that this is what a story is, it is a thing we all agree to look at, and focus on, although it is not there.

After I am done speaking someone raises a hand and asks how I get my ideas, where my stories come from. I am not 91, so I answer quickly:

I have no idea. They just come.