On a wet piece of shimmering asphalt, a small yellow tube of lip balm stands erect, balanced between two small stones. To the west, the sonorous howl of coyotes, accompanied by a distant rumble as silver-yellow headlights flood tentatively into the hills.
Miles away, a small yellow cat, no larger than a finger, lies quietly in the night on a bed of green moss. Fashioned from liquid polymers, she is the only witness to the shifting forms of rain, ever soft, falling on the warped boards of the porch. Pinpricks and drops. Tiny balls of ice. Lumpy, inelegant crusts. All melting into a vast pool of silence.
Meanwhile, within an immense puzzle of cracks and crevices, a sheer cliff comprised of protruding boulders, jagged edges, and smooth, scalloped bellies, lies a small triangular rock, no larger than a hand, marked with an X. Behind this rock, which, when oriented correctly, slides inconspicuously into place with a certain motion of the hand, is a tiny, empty chamber. Inside, a rusty key.
Miles further, as on another side of the world, a small plastic doll, about the size and shape of a man’s thumb (and you would surely recognize this common toy), stares, ever-smiling, at the river beneath its rocky home.
It was years ago that the little boy placed him in the sand by the riverbed. Set amongst the small pebbles, red, blue, purple, creamy yellow and gray, the doll, sky blue with peach-toned skin, was forgotten. Perhaps it was after lunch or a brief wade into the water’s edge, where, attracted by a quick dash in his eye, the boy reached into the water and, with two fingers, extracted the movement. A crawfish - of all places and times - a crawfish, red, blue and translucent. Pulling the little creature, about the size of his own hand, up through the air, the water draining off its back and down the boy’s hand, he slowly turned the animal over and watched with growing terror as the legs, antennae and pinchers, now quite resembling an insect, menacingly caught his attention and, with a squeal, he dropped it back into the river and ran off to tell his parents. His mother was shaking the sand from a blanket. It was time to go, she said. His father knelt nearby, combing the grass for a missing lid. The little doll, smiling pleasantly at the game, could hardly have known the little boy’s legs, which kicked up the sand and rushes along the river, trailing after his parents, were leaving for good.
He had been left behind before, in the backyard, in the basement, under the seat of the car. But this, it turned out, was different. Weeks went by. Nights grew cold. The birds with long, elegant necks and thin poles for legs were replaced by small, fat creatures that, when taking to the air, flapped their wings noisily and hammered away with small orange feet as if the act of flying were something to which they weren’t accustomed. Soon the little doll, still smiling, saw the small pool of water at his feet turn to stone and the insects, who had occasionally come to drink there, disappeared. One day, the rain itself came as stones and the doll, acquainted with the small grains of yellow sand with which the boy had buried him endlessly before in the backyard, began to feel that familiar sense of the earth, surrounding, swaddling, holding him - till he was quite blind, buried from head to foot. A glowing white light pervaded all around him and was, for one brief moment, magic, ethereal, all-consuming, but the glow soon faded to a dull gray, and, as before in the backyard, grew to the familiar blackness of absolute of loss. Still smiling, the doll waited patiently.
Nearby, unbeknownst to the doll, a heavy boulder of basalt lay amidst the course of the river, bending the water to the left and right as it made its way down the earth. The boulder, formed some millions of years ago in a tumultuous sea of molten forms, had hardened and cooled to a smooth and fine-grained homogeneity. It had, in fact, been part of a massive layer of rock that, for most of its life, was indistinguishable from the entire layer of space then occupied by one tremendous monolith of cold stone. It remained that way, unchanged for untold millions of years. Then, as sudden as a heartbeat, it cracked. That is, the entire layer, awakened by a tremendous pressure from underneath, shattered like a pane of glass into millions of slivers and shards. It was instantaneous.
Rent in two massive sheets, an emptiness spilled between what quickly became two stone walls - one to the left, one to the right - as the tattered remnants of rock on either side shook loose like dust and tumbled to the floor. It was chaotic, noisome and fierce. Then, just as suddenly, it stopped. Everything settled into place. The earth stood aghast. It was only years later, many thousands of years in fact, that this particular boulder, as it could only now be called, came creeping ever closer to the edge of that empty space, that seeming nothingness, until finally, after a particularly heavy rain, the weight shifted ever so slightly in favor of the protruding edge and a motion began, slowly, endlessly slow at first, as a train’s first motion of its heavy iron wheels, adding slight degrees to the harmony of motion till it crushed the grit and gravel underneath and tumbled, sliding, now faster, and then tremendously fast and with ferocious knocking and scraping, tearing the limbs and trunks of trees in its path and shattering other rocks in its progress, till, sending up a spray of water into the surrounding air, it landed in the riverbed below.
But the boulder, now cut and divided from its monolith, was not utterly pure. Nothing is. Tucked deep into the monolith, formed as it had with all the other globules of molten metals and liquid earths, were all sorts of pocks and blisters of chemical syntheses and crystal forms that, though remarkably similar to each other and the monolith, were nonetheless unique and varied. Some were purple, others white. Some had soft, sandy grains, while others were hard and smooth like polished bone. Hidden amongst the gray-black monolith, these corpuscles and veins of stone, some softer, some harder, patiently waited, much like the smiling doll, in the darkness. Most of them still lie there, unseen, even today.
The large boulder that had severed itself from the monolith and tumbled to the river below had such a stone - a hard, yellowish stone that, when the boulder landed in the river, had the good fortune to lay on the upright surface, facing the sun. At first it was barely noticeable, except for a few small bubbles and cracks on the boulder’s otherwise smooth and shapely surface. The river, having begun its course many thousands of years prior, raised a gentle murmur, a soft grayish noise, nearby. In fact, the whole world was suddenly full of sound. Once exposed to the air, the water and sun plied these little cracks and bubbles, which, aided by the wind and rain, began slowly to expand. The boulder, once indistinguishable from the immense monolith, now formed tiny grains of gray-black sand.
Most of all it was the ice. Years and years and countless years of ice, forming first as small pools of water in the cracks between the creamy yellow stone and the gray-black boulder, and then, as occasion had it, freezing into ice. Ever so slightly the ice, forming into its crystal structure, expanded, a rare thing if ever there was one, and, pushing, cracking, advancing, the frangible layer between stone and boulder, which had once united the two inconspicuously within the great monolith, broke apart. It took ages, absolute ages, but over time the stone, about the size of a man’s fist, finally broke free. For the first time ever, since the stone had been a molten liquid - nothing but movement - it was free to turn and spin. These movements were tiny, so inescapably tiny that no creature, not even an insect, could have discerned them. But they were there.
Still encapsulated as it was in the little pocket of the boulder, the stone began a long and achingly slow journey - not up and out - but ever deeper into the center of the massive boulder, which, accompanied by the seasonal rise and ebb of the river waters, was now privy to all sorts of creatures that, surely enough, had limbs and legs of their own and managed, without the aid of gravity or any sort of tumbling, to move about the empty space. Some even chanced to climb upon the boulder, depositing what at first seemed a foul-smelling dirt that felt awkward on the boulder’s skin, but which, after a while, seemed to attract other creatures, some smaller, some larger, and some, miracle of miracles, who flew upon the emptiness itself without a leg to stand on, a trunk, or anything at all.
Life, it turned out, was terrifying and grand. The whole thing - the rising and setting of the sun, the dry heat and the hail storms, the skitter of small, padded feet and the deep tickle of penetrating roots - everything, the shear everything throbbed and ached with a beauty that the small stone and the large boulder, now old friends, shared between them. It was joyful. It was painful, as when the river swelled, casually drowning the rushes and seedlings the pair had watched take a tenuous foothold in the sand of the shore. Fear was ever present, as was a deep, sunbaked relaxation.
Against all logic, against all the obvious contortions of gravity, the chips and grains of rock, both from the basalt boulder and the creamy yellow stone, slowly drifted to the top of the hole, which was now growing quite cylindrical, that had formed in the face of the boulder. Again, it was the ice. Cracked and torn by the freeze and thaw of many years, the tiny chips froze, on beautiful and rare occasions, into the very substance of the ice. Always, almost always, the ice simply thawed, and the tiny chips simply fell back into the pool of sand now forming at the bottom of the cylindrical hole. But on the rarest moments of calibrated joy they were, when the balance tipped in favor of the delicious and rare expression of moment, carried to the top, when, as luck would have it, a second rain came after the frost, bearing the patch of ice, only lightly burdened by cracked stone, to the surface of the hole, where, if yet another branch of luck would show itself, the wind, or a second or third heavy drop of rain, or even the brush of a webbed foot, might remove them from the center of gravity bearing directly down into the hole, just off the middling point at the edge, and into the awareness of space in which gravity, for the first time in thousands of years would, in due course, take the crushed rock, not back down the hole, but the other way, down the surface of the boulder, over the edge, and into the endless river below. Slowly, achingly slowly, the bits of sand and rock were worn this way, transported to the top on a float of ice, and washed down the river. Over time the stone, still the same creamy-yellow color and texture, became almost spherical as time advanced a slow sheen of polish onto its surface. Heavy, much too heavy for the tiny boats and ships of ice, it sank ever further into the boulder, filling the space evacuated by the chips and grains the two stones gave off. And the two held each other in a way that only rocks and stones can do.
The chips and bits of sand, grayish black or white and yellow, once indistinguishable from the massive and seamless behemoth of monolithic stone, dripped, each in their turn, over the edge of the boulder, never to return again, where, almost immediately, they mixed and tumbled into the tumult of fluid waters, waters they had listened to patiently for eons. The bits of rock sloshed and tarried with others, countless others, chips and grains from boulders and stones much like the ones they had come from, but nevertheless different, some ancient, some only recently born, all from the same monolith, plummeting raucously down the course of the riverbed. Transformed into mud and sand, along with green bits of once living plants and even the raw defecations of sea creatures and water birds, these multitudes mixed and consorted into sands and muds that traveled down, always down, that mighty, flowing river. On occasion the water turned a rapid corner only to pool, quietly, slowly, like summer’s dead insects, into the pockets and lees of the river, often around the very same boulders that birthed the little grains of sands, which now blocked and erupted its path. Vast pools of sand were deposited, the color and shape of the grains recalling the forms and crystalline structures of their parent stones, only to be suddenly scooped away by the torrential spring melt, and levied once again into a newly formed bank of sand. On one of these, as chance would have it, a blue, black and red crawfish had crawled over a smooth river stone, and footprints, left behind by a dashing child, could still be seen in the shallow waters. It was the very same sand upon which the little doll, now dumbly, but contentedly, sat in the darkness of elemental snow.
Vivian’s warm hand was in mine as we stepped onto the red granite rock. Pema, my own daughter, had scrambled after her cousin, Vivian’s older sister, to the top of the ledge. The rocks, huge granite formations in a spectacular valley outside Denver, Colorado, are surrounded by acres and acres of jaw-dropping, sprawling mansions. The scope and size of the human footprint is, in some ways, a perfect match to the tonnage of rock in its midst. It’s not uncommon to see a 5,000 sf house, tastefully appointed, tucked inside the alluring curve of a rock, dwarfing the majestic home. Staggering ponderosa pines, dwarfing both house and stone, obscure the extent of the surrounding valley and its development, which, as the veins of wire and pipes, with their accompanying fluids and pumps and vitriols, dawned on my swollen mind, painted a picture of immense surreality.
“The rocks,” my aunt had told me, trying to recall the story she had only recently heard from someone else, “are - how does it go? - left over from a big mountain range that was here before the Rockies.” She was smiling, as was I. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the three girls in our midst ran in various patterns at our feet. “As the Rockies formed, it pushed these rocks up from the earth, which is why they look slanted.”
It was no surprise, then, as I held Vivian’s trusting hand securely in mine, when grains of the rock scraped loose under my foot. Searching for a secure grip with my free hand, the rock, loosely cemented after eons of weathering, came apart like dry clay, leaving a smear of red grit on my palm. Still, it held firm enough. We took a few careful steps up the inclined rock, stopping to look around the valley. The paths, the roads, the ground, the dust - everything was comprised of this crumbling, decrepit rock. And everywhere, like watchtowers in our midst, massive remnants of those once colossal mountains poked above the treetops and grasslands, tilted at oblique angles to the level of the earth.
“No further girls!” shouted my aunt. Pema and her cousin had disappeared over the top of the stone, out of sight. The grandmother in her was coming out, a bit nervous for the height. Vivian and I, securely in hand, walked calmly towards them. “Further,” I thought.
Once, while walking alone in the Rio Grande Gorge, I was hopping from boulder to boulder along the river when I came upon a small cliff that protruded over the water. The tops of a few boulders poked through the deep pool below. With just the right handholds and footsteps, I thought, I would be able to make it across. As I got halfway into my effort, a small white glimmer caught my eye deep in the crack of the stone cliff. Holding on carefully, I contorted my body so that my eyes could peer directly in front of the crack. I could almost feel the rock against my teeth. There, in the middle of nowhere, absolute nowhere, were two eyes staring directly at me. A small doll, of the type I had been familiar with as a child, it had that same gentle smile, and its eyes, ever-focused on the water below, looked happy. Tucked against it were a few tattered pieces of driftwood, all of which had, it seemed to me, floated in a calm pool here years ago when the seasonal snowmelt had raised the river several a full man’s height above what now ran under my feet.
Once, while making fairy houses on the back porch of my cousin’s house, as I made endless shapes and swirls with caramel-colored pine needles, I watched as Vivian placed a small, yellow cat on a tiny bed of moss.
Once, after spying a large boulder with petroglyphs and the rusted remains of an old, broken wagon, I was walking along the Rio Grande, far upstream from my house. Once again, I was climbing over boulders along the shore when, within a small, fist-sized hole in the surface of the large boulder I was standing upon, something gold flashed in my eye. The hole was full of water, but I reached inside anyway and, to my delight, plunged my arm halfway down to the elbow. It was a perfect cylinder, like a glass tumbler. At the very bottom, along with some sand and grit, my fingers felt the perfectly spherical edges of a cold stone inside, about the size of my fist. It twisted and turned as I tried to get a grip on it. No luck. The same circumference as that of the hole, I could not get my fingers around the stone to grasp it. Having muddied the water, I could no longer see the glimmer that had once caught my eye, but I could feel it in the darkness.
Once, while walking the crumbled sand and gravel along the Rio Hondo, I found a small rusty key.
Once, in the middle of a faint rain, well before the sun broke into night, I walked onto the road near my house and gave the only thing I had to give. I reached in my pocket and produced a small yellow tube of lip balm. On my knees, carefully balancing it on two of the rocks that had been cemented into that throbbing road, a new sort of monolith, I stood it upright, a fact that pleased me. Then, as the soft roar of a distant car filled my body and entered my ears, I scurried into the darkness and vanished.