The Third Step
There are places we’ve never been to that fill us with longing, places we’ve never visited except in dreams, places we weren’t sure existed until we saw them in photographs. We can’t explain this craving, what we hope to gain, we only know the desire to be there. For some, it is nothing more than a fancy, a wistful vision of a happier time, a belief that by moving, they will leave something behind that they want to forget and something ahead worth struggling for. For others, its something more, a visit to shadow worlds, to memories that are not their own, a beckoning call from their ancestors.
My ancestral roots… how could I find them? They were buried so deeply, so far away, I only felt them in the cold, in the dark, when their tendrils sought warmth in the deep underground. I only felt them when I sat on the bank of a river, and the trembling crests said, “follow me”. I was carefree then, so young the cascading laughter remains only an echo and the sure, swift feet a reminder that all things pass.
I was younger and light hearted and daring. I walked the Devil’s Stomping Ground. I didn’t find it particularly suspicious or frightening. It was just a path that formed a rough circle in the woods of North Carolina. People said a lot of things about it. No one seemed to know how the path originated, but the little communities of farmers and factory workers swore it was placed there by the devil. They also swore that anything you placed in the path was gone in the morning. They recited stories of logs that were deliberately set across the path that were moved over by daybreak They said that nothing would grow there. We sat up late in the night, shivering, as the stories grew wilder. One fellow said he had set up a camp on the path, along with a couple of buddies. During the night, they were thrown from the path and their tent and fire pit had been moved over. The buddies, however, weren’t around to confirm the story.
My interest wasn’t really arrested, however, until I was told that the Cherokees that had once spread across the northern part of the state, had used that area as ceremonial grounds. The Cherokees had been a part of the same Iroquois Nation my own maternal descendants had sprang from. I determined I had to see the path for myself.
Although it was said the path was always clear of debris, this wasn’t completely true. Although there were no large branches or obstacles covering it, there was a certain amount of ground litter; dead leaves and small, broken twigs. The path was remarkably defined, however, as though someone was constantly using it. It ambled cheerily into the woods, circling around almost imperceptibly, returning after about a fifteen minute walk, back to the starting point. It was a pleasant day, with a light, crisp autumn air, and I found the hike more invigorating than scary. But that night, I dreamed.
It wasn’t an ordinary dream. It was twisted, vague and fraught with voices. The voices continued into the morning, sighing, whispering, nudging me with memories that weren’t mine, and longings I couldn’t fathom. I had entered a shadow world, somewhere between the physical and the eternal. The ethereal never left me. It became my constant companion while I traveled, urging me quickly to some locations, veering me sharply away from others, while the voices chanted, “danger! Danger!”
I communicated with Pele, beautiful spirit of the volcano, who could change from a young girl to an old woman at whim, but Pele is a separate story. She guided me often, and eventually urged me on into Tehuacan, where the jade bead story begins.
To an untutored eye, a tourist on vacation, or a businessman taking advantage of the heavily mineralized geyser waters of San Lorenzo, there’s not a great deal about Tehuacan one could find remarkable. The town is small, the people are mostly poor. It is surrounded by Indian villages that are even poorer. I set up camp in one of these villages, under a plastic covered dome, no bigger than a tent that one of the villagers had made for me.
According to the inhabitants, Tehuacan is the oldest human settlement on earth. It is the cradle of civilization. There might be other cradles here and there across the globe, they agree, but Tehuacan is the center of all the Native American tribes.
Even to the amateur archeologist, Tehuacan is incredibly old. The ground beneath the feet, immediately outside the town limits, is littered with layers and layers of crushed and broken pottery, strewn with cast away onyx, and dimpled with the mounds of past civilizations. The ancient Mayan canals, which had once dominated the landscape of their flourishing culture, are still being used for irrigation, bathing and washing clothing.
Tehuacan spoke to me, perhaps in much the same manner as Jerusalem speaks to its pilgrims. As I climbed the hill each evening to my little, plastic dome, I felt an excitement in the land I walked on, a welcoming home. It was home, and as much as I loved it, my eyes often traveled on to the sweeping plateau where nothing lived but the sagebrush and cactus and some desert animals scrambling for cover at the first sign of intruders.
The villagers sometimes came back with strange things they had discovered in that apparent wasteland; small artifacts, stone carvings; one time a disk was set in front of me, the finder demanding to know what it was. I picked it up with curiosity. It was the color of wood, but as hard as iron. It could not be scratched or dented. It was about an inch and a half thick, a perfectly metered circle with an equally perfectly hole in the middle. After examining it for some time, I had to admit I didn’t know.
The longing to explore grew deeper. Each day, I would look out onto the plateau until my eye began to familiarize itself with all the small details. I noticed the barely discernible corners of buildings nudging out of the shifting sands. I saw occasional trees that did not belong to the desert landscape; that must have been cultivated at one point or part of a flourishing copse. Bent, dwarfed, deprived of adequate water, humiliated by time, they still tried to survive.
I realized, one afternoon, as I looked out over the plateau, that one of the staggered trees was situated next to what appeared to be two steps rising out of the ground. In front of these steps, I seemed to see Pele beckoning indistinctly. She shimmered translucently in the afternoon sun and smiled. I left and trekked out into the desert without telling anyone where I was going.
Distance is illusionary in the desert. Objects appear much closer than they are. What I thought would be a short walk took a good half hour. With each step, I felt like I was shifting through the pages of time and dimension. The village expanded in these shuffling layers; the physical buildings on the hill, and adobe and bamboo huts moving backwards to the Oaxacan mountains, like fainter and fainter reflections in rippling water.
When I reached the two steps, I saw that it must have supported a pavilion or a veranda. The outermost step spread out and disappeared under a thick mound of earth, but in the area surrounding the step, the sand was thin and revealed a platform of indeterminate size underneath. The branches of the tree, a magnolia that no longer flowered, still shaded the platform. There was a feeling in this spot of taking a break from the hot, sticky day to sit in a refreshing coolness where the breeze licked lightly, and neighbors gathered to gossip.
While I sat there, enjoying the cool respite, I noticed that underneath the second step, a third barely surfaced. Level with the ground, it showed only a small part of its construction. I moved down, and began idly brushing the sand away from the third step. An image flashed through my mind of someone buying a jade bead necklace, or bartering for it, I couldn’t tell which. I only felt the keen satisfaction of the buyer as he held the precious necklace in his hand. My fingers flitted more over the surface dust and I found it; the jade bead.
It was perfect, veined like a leaf, smooth as glass, tapered to fit a necklace with chunky, rounded beads that grew thicker toward the middle. There is something marvelous about Pre-Columbian jade, something our modern craftsmanship and technology has failed to recreate. Not only is the precision of the tapered angles and drilled holes phenomenal, there is absolutely no indication as to the tools that were used. There are no sharp edges, no drill marks, no scratches, no accidental cuts, no irregular flaws to smooth away. Each piece is perfectly shaped to match another, the graduating sizes the careful calculation of mathematics. My hand wrapped over the bead almost greedily. I didn’t need the whole necklace to know where this piece belonged or to see the artwork in its completion.
I sat there far longer than I had realized, listening to sounds that weren’t really words, but a babble of voices seeming to scan centuries. When I looked up, the sun was beginning to set. The village was already flickering with lights. Knowing it wasn’t wise to be in desert alone at night, I decided I’d better hurry if I wanted to get back to the village before dark.
The Santa Ana winds had sprung up and flapped at my loose clothing. The setting sun caught on my eyes and hair. Although walking toward the sun, I felt like I had just walked away from it, and it was releasing me once more into this time frame I had grown familiar with living in. Time was fluttering and shifting like the wind, like the rifled pages of a book, revealing the past, present, future, all at once.
The closer I got to the village, the solider the earth became beneath my feet, and the more the sun rolled away from me, whispering goodby in a flurry of violet clouds. It had just turned dark as I opened the door to join the family that had taken me in and built my plastic dome. Rosa, who was only two years older than me, but felt she needed to guide me like a child, was angry. “Where have you been?” She scolded. “We have been looking everywhere for you. We were afraid you might have been taken by a bandit or attacked by a dog.”
“I was only out by those ruined steps. You can see them from here.”
She sniffed. “Then the spirits must have taken you. Be careful with them if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I found a jade bead.” I opened my leather pouch and showed her.
She looked at it suspiciously. “Put it back. It doesn’t belong to you. If you don’t put it back, the spirits will come and get it.”
“I can’t go back now. It’s dark out.”
“Do it tomorrow. Do it in the morning. It’s not wise to mess around with the spirits. You never know when you’ll offend them.”
She set a plate of food in front of me and sat down to watch while I ate. “Listen. Be careful about wandering around in the desert by yourself. Maybe you are protected but there are bad men out there. The spirits might not always make you invisible.”
“I wasn’t invisible,” I started to laugh, but she cut me short.
“Do not take these things so lightly. You live too much like a child, your head always in the clouds, staring at pretty things. You must learn not only to see, but to watch, because others could be watching you.”
When I retired to my tent that night, I placed the leather bag on a post next to my sleeping bag. I laid down, not truly tired, but content with my day’s exercise, I stared at the walls, flexing and expanding with the caprice of the wind. In one of the homes nearby, a campesino strummed his guitar and occasionally sang, the words snatched up by the rustling air and drifting into the evening sky.
The lamp glowed deeply in the low-ceilinged dome. The musician’s voice faltered and finally sank into silence. It was then that he came. I didn’t really see him, only his shadow blocking the lamp light. I could smell him. It wasn’t really unpleasant, but primal, the scent of wild animals and sweat. I watched him as he came into the tent and sat down, studying something in his hands. I knew he was the owner of the bead and sat up, breathing shallowly, my eyes more fixed on the pouch than on the man. After a few minutes, he stood up, stooped and exited through the door.
A little unnerved by the experience; I was fully awake and had not closed my eyes at any moment since I laid down; I reached up and took the leather pouch from its post, checking on the jade bead inside before putting it under my pillow. I slept lightly, my dreams troubled with voices without words, movement without form, emotions washing in and out like the tide changes and a quivering awareness of even the cat that padded softly outside the tent, waiting for prey. As soon as sunlight began streaming through the narrow slits between the plastic and the ground, I rose and checked my leather pouch. The bead was gone.
I felt deprived. I felt cheated. The bead should have been mine. It had lain unnoticed under the soil for perhaps millennia until I had uncovered it. I returned to the area where the steps rose timidly from the ground, hoping I might be find another artifact. If the spot had revealed one when I wasn’t really looking, it should reveal more with a conscious search. The villagers would not approve of bringing a shovel or spade, but they would not care if I brushed dust away with my fingers. I checked the upper platform and the first step, loosening the earth where it had thickened and darkened, longing to see what was underneath but not daring to disturb the ruined structure too much. I found nothing.
At mid-day, the goat herders often chose this spot to cool off, and children often played there, so I assumed anything to be found on the surface had long ago been pocketed, so moved down to the second step, eager to begin my subtle examination of the third. My heart sank. During the evening, as the sands shifted and moaned across the desert, the third step had become completely buried. My hand brushed at the covering furiously, but the fine granules slipped back across my investigation like the sand trickling into an hour glass. I waited, hoping the feeling would come back; the feeling of transition, the feeling of being so closely connected with the earth, my finger tips would be like invisible roots, burying into the ground and all earth’s dark secrets. Nothing came to me. The sun shone flatly and a low-lying breeze sighed and twisted playfully with the tumbleweed.
I returned to the spot again and again, hoping that magic portal into dimensions of time would open up once more, but the desert was unresponsive. It moaned as it always moaned, never really still, never really lifeless, bending and reshaping the mounds covering centuries of history, but it never again uncovered the third step.
Karla Fetrow- I set out on a journey to find my roots that eventually took me to the small Mexican town of Tehuacan. Was it possible that this small town resting on centuries of history was an alternative cradle of civilization?