Marks in the Sand

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

I saw the tarantula first. I saw only the black, hairy legs groping toward my face as I opened my eyes from a nap in the desert. Light-blinded and startled, my head flat to the earth, I watched it creep menacingly closer. The deliberate movements of its legs were robotic, exploratory, wary. I dared not move. I felt the burn of the sunlamp sky and felt the perspiration rise from the pores of my bare skin. Then, a few inches from my face, the tarantula stopped, stood still and rigid for what seemed like an eternity.

After watching it and waiting awhile, listening to my breathing and my heartbeat, I scooched a safe margin away, not taking my eyes off the spider. But there, my face still close to the ground, I saw in the dust the splintered pottery — three small shards of clay, the color of fresh calves’ liver, cupped slightly like the walls of a conch, weathered smooth and dull-edged, hand-painted long ago, primitive black spirals.

I do not know artifacts, relics, the dating of archeological finds. I do know the power of timeworn, handmade objects. I stuffed the fragments into the pocket of my jeans.

The two of us, crossing paths with no one, had been out some days in the New Mexican landscape. Our backpacking had taken us past ancient cliff dwellings (low ceilings still singed black with fire soot) and the stone remnants of a settlement abandoned centuries before. In a sheltering stand of fragrant cedars we came upon a shrine, an altar. Older than any church on the continent, the sanctuary still drew pilgrims; the prayer feathers and flags, the tobacco pouches, crucifixes, stones and holy cards were evidence of petitioners who had come from far to this sacred, isolated place.

That was two days ago. Last night the thin air had dropped to 15 degrees, freezing our water solid, sealing our gear in ice, making our predawn rising difficult and shivery. So by late morning, with the flaming yellow sun high in the sky, we pulled off our layers, spread out our stuff to dry, and stretched out on the crusty ground to let the sunlight warm us. Until the tarantula arrived and yanked me from my reverie.

Later, as we hiked through the rocky desert, sweaty and dusty, I watched for spiders and snakes and would finger the pottery chips in my pocket and wonder what I would do with them. Of course, I wanted to keep them, to put them on a shelf at home, to remind me of this place and time. Then, too, I knew they belonged not to me but here, although it seemed a waste to leave them loose upon the desert where time, wind and sand would grind them down to nothing.

Late that afternoon, we hiked along the base of a red-faced wall towering high overhead. Near sunset we arrived at a clear running creek, narrow, shallow and cold, bordered by sand beds and shaded by small trees. A good spot for the night.

We wandered a little ways upstream to find a place to gather water and spied a cavernous bowl scooped out of the sandstone cliffs. So we scrambled up the hillside and followed a footworn route ascending toward the cave. We clambered up to the ledge and, somewhat breathless from the climb, pulled ourselves up to the grotto and stared in silence at what we saw.

There were old hand-hewn bowls, a pipe and bones. A few clay vessels of various sizes, colors and conditions. Some small, some in pieces, some delicately painted — thunderbirds, lightning, geometric bands and decorations. Small sticks, whittled and polished into tools, lay upon the stone floor. There was an old fire pit and smoke stains on the ceiling. And there were paintings on the back walls, smeared onto stone in dark reds, mahogany and rust. But there were mostly hands. Hand prints. All over the back wall. Hand prints of all sizes.

We went back down by the creek for dinner and ate in silence, solemn among the spirits, affected by what we had seen. But after dinner, as the sun slipped away and the evening winds stirred, we climbed back up in twilight. We sat there while dark descended and the stars came out and the desert winds patrolled the landscape. And I pulled the fragments from my pocket, the broken pieces from a jug or bowl, relics from a potter’s wheel, hand-shaped and sun-baked, fingers caressing clay and mud, pigments sipped from earth and plant, artfully mixed by human hands, hands like mine. Fragments and hands jammed into my pockets. I saw the hand prints on the walls, elemental drawings of the hunt, two-leggeds and four-leggeds and the wings of the air. I stood before the paintings and placed my offerings there with the others. Feathers and bone. Pottery shards. Water vessels. Hand prints on the wall. I am here. My hands matched theirs. I am here. At dusk, the tinkling water from a creek nearby, sunset, darkness and stars. The winds stirred. Moonlight upon the landscape. Reverence, communion and life. Smoky prayers.

How does one extract the spirit from this place? Separate creator from creation? Tell me those hands are not mine too. There are stars overhead and trees rustling in the nighttime wind and campfire smoke ascending to heaven. There are memories here and dreams in my blood and the voices of those praying forever. The Earth spins on its axis, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are not far from here, a coyote wails in the distance. Sand, rock, the mystery of frail and temporary bodies, hands to mark our moments and our place. Dried wood burning sweetly. My eyes scan the creamy girdle of the Milky Way. It is brighter in the southern hemisphere, I am told, because our tiny planet is not at the center of this immense river of stars, but off to one side. And I watch here, propped against rock, wind in my face, my markings scratched in sand.

Am I not a chord, a note, a tone in the symphonic oneness of the universe? The sound, at least, of a bow drawn across the strings of a violin in orchestra? A singular oscillation folded into the music of the spheres. Into the chorus of woodwinds and brass and sea, percussion and fire, meadowlark and baby’s cry. And is God not to his creation just as waves are to water? Am I — and everything else — not adrift in this ocean of mystery and wonder? Do we all not make pottery to proclaim our singular celebration? Are my hands not lifted?

There was smoke from ancient fires caked black onto the ceiling of this dwelling place. And stones worn smooth from use, from footfall, from human wear. Moonlight shone off the rock facing. An occasional meteor flared across the desert sky. Canopy of stars. I bedded down near there, inhaling the scents of cedar and pine, listening to creatures scuttle in the brush, wrapped into the landscape embracing me.