I’ve been following the discovery of ancient footprints at White Sands with interest. The most recent thinking pushes back the date that people first came to North America. The tale below is a story within a story, part of my unpublished novel “The Future Tense of River.” It was inspired by perhaps the oldest hominid foot prints in an African rift valley. For the purposes of the book, it is set on the Colorado Plateau.
What the Rift Told
She kept one eye on the mountain and one on the dying woman. It had been a difficult few days. When the mountain started to spew hot mud and the earth shook and shook, everyone decided to break camp. They’d seen this before. First mud, then ash, then an eruption with earth slides that took down trees and everything else in the path of destruction.. Sometimes fire. Better to move. The dry riverbeds were a barrier, the old-timers said. After that, the delta, the lake, fish, and a change of camping grounds. Summer was coming. They’d been here too long. The proof—a trail of smoke from the collapsed caldera.
But her mother’s sister’s daughter was in labor. Too long, exhausting, swollen. The child lay sideways, and she couldn’t move it. Actually, she suspected the child was dead. And the mother soon to follow. But she couldn’t leave her, not a mother cousin, really not anyone. She kept her two boys with her, lying to herself a little that they’d suffer without her. When of
course they wouldn’t. Anyone could care for them. She’d follow the others later. But she kept them.
And then told them to amuse themselves. Get dinner, grubs, lizards, locusts. They gorged themselves, roasted things to a crunch.
Mama, said the younger one. Is that God? He pointed to the mountain.
No, she said. God is here. And she put his hand to his heart.
He’d seen her offer food to a blue stone, feathers to the wind.
There are little gods everywhere, she explained. Each thing has its god. And there is the big God, inside. And the ancestors of the mothers…there are many things that will help you. Many things.
By now her cousin was beyond hunger or thirst, bleeding out, just a whimper. The mountain rumbled, stinking of mud and ash. Dust started to fall, closer, poisonous. The child lay crosswise and the would-be mother died. She’d have to leave them, come back in four seasons for the bones to gather, disarticulate, smear with red, and bury in a basket. Unless the mountain buried it all first.
Come on come on, she told her boys. We leave now. No more playing slap the hand or hunt the antelope. Run! The younger was on her back, heavy but not that heavy. First child had her hand. Walk walk. Now run! Her legs were long, very long for a woman. She’d seen summer seventeen times, she wasn’t yet old. Faster. They stepped in mud, ash falling. Trotted uphill, down again, and there was the valley. Across the dry riverbeds. The air cleared a little.
Camp could not be far, two days at most. They could walk all night, the little one asleep on her back. Rest in shade in the day. They’d see the others soon. Her own mother was gone, mother’s sister too. She felt the pull of grief in her belly, the mother and child she’d lost.
Mama, said first child, squeezing her hand. Mama, we ran so fast, it was like flying.
She wondered for a moment why she felt she’d left something behind, besides her failure to save mother or child. Maybe just two sets of footprints in ash.