In 2003 Tacoma gallery owner Kathy Kaperic and glass artist Dale Chihuly went to Taos New Mexico to start a glass blowing program like the pioneering Hilltop Artists glass program at Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma. I was fortunate to be part of the far reaching endeavor and that year I wrote this Christmas story and with each copy was a glas bead. Reading it again, I’m reminded of the magic and mystery of that time.
The dry snow of the high desert is like its summer twin the sand. When the wind plays with it, solid ground disappears and the swirling cloud of either twin makes the desert floor flow like a vast ocean.
It was impossible to sleep most nights that winter. The baby was due in less than one moon and the smoky heat from the fireplaces inside the small apartments of the pueblo made her choke and sweat. For many evenings now she would climb up to the highest rooftop of the Taos pueblo and watch the red color of the setting sun wash down the adobe walls. It was quiet time at the village, the season of contemplation and renewal that was observed by the Taos people each winter.
At day’s end, when everyone else was at rest, she would watch the light fade on snow covered Taos Mountain and smile at the way its towering white silhouette would become a soft shadow against the east. And then she would lay back on her buffalo robe and warm blankets and watch the sky. Most nights the stars would seem so dense that they would obscure the darkness. Other nights she would lay there in a light snow and it was as if the stars were falling from the darkness, touching her face in cool licks.
There was no snow on one midwinter night as she laid there gazing at the sparkling patterns. Then, from the eastern sky above the mountain came a streaking ball of light that soared over her head and dropped down behind her. The night sky was always silent but this time a roar followed the object. It sounded like cloth being torn or a flame bursting. She sat bolt upright and there far off to the west she could see a fire burning in the snow.
Climbing down the pueblo’s cottonwood ladders to the ground, she wrapped her heavy robe tightly around herself and set off toward the distant light. It was a longer distance than she thought but soon she cleared the snowy pinion trees and juniper forest that surrounded the village. She could see that the fireball had fallen this side of the Rio Grand river canyon, somewhere on the rolling sage desert that was blanketed in deep winter snow. It wasn’t long before a black mark in the snow, running in a long straight line away from her, became visible against the white ground. She followed it to the crest of a small rise and there in the distance, like a bon fire, was a low red glow. As she grew closer, walking alongside the burnt trail of the comet in the snow, she noticed the form of another person. Alone and far from the pueblo, she was torn between her curiosity and caution but she did not stop and in a minute she was feeling the heat of the burning sky object that sat in a small nest on the desert.
The figure standing at the edge of the crater was clearly not aware of her approach, and when he finally turned at the crunching sound of her feet in the snow, there was an agile leap of surprise. Large with the baby and bundled in the wooly buffalo hide, she realized that her size far outmatched the man who was about her height but thin of frame and covered only in Mexican peasant cloths and a thin blanket.
“Ola” she said in Spanish.
He returned the gentle greeting and relaxed into a more natural posture. She could see that he was a much older man than she imagined from a distance and now, by the orange glow of the comet, she could also see that he had a deeply weathered face and overly large bright eyes. He looked nocturnal and the way his blanket hung down over his shoulders and arms made her think of the owls that hunt scorpions around the pueblo at night. From under the wings of his fringed serape blanket she noticed his curled fingers with pale long nails and the way he held his hands up together in front of him. Even his strange eared cap gave him a bird like appearance.
She doubted he would understand her native Tiwa language, so after a long time of just staring at the basket size object she asked in Spanish if he had seen the comet fall from the sky. When he nodded, she asked if he knew what it meant. There was a childish tone to her question, driven partly by her sixteen year old curiosity and wonder and partly by her limited understanding of Spanish. The old man quickly grasp the youthful marvel in her question, and as he began to answer he recognized in the young woman something he had felt himself many years ago.
“I have seen comets before” he told her. “ They are pieces of the worlds in the sky.” They mean to remind us that our world is not the only one and that no matter how far we wander we can never reach the end of everything. There is always a world beyond, always another place to see.” As he spoke she kept looking deeper into the comet and listening deeper into his words. They both seemed to be warming her face.
“How do you know these things” she puzzled. “I have lived here all my life and my people have lived here since the beginning of time. We have watched the sky forever and there is no story like this.”
“When I was young” he started, I lived by the sea with my parents. My father built boats and taught me the craft of carpentry. By the time I was your age I was sailing the oceans working as an apprentice shipwright. I saw icebergs and volcanoes, fish that could fly and whales bigger than your pueblo. I’ve seen holy men that can float in the air and witch doctors so evil that they do not have a shadow. I saw a beast that was so terrible that people died just from hearing its roar and I saw a bird so beautiful that a rainbow followed it wherever it went. I saw a city of gold under the sea and I once held a raincloud in my hands.
The girl had not let her eyes wander from the molten skystone during the old man’s storytelling but when he seemed to stop speaking she looked over at him. He stood across from her, his wrinkled face filled with the copper light of the comet. There was a soft expression of fond memories that seemed to mix with the warmth of the comet.
“Come with me” he said in a promising voice. “When a comet falls into the sea it sends up a shower of a million blue sparks that float away in different directions. Each spark melts into the sea and becomes a million pearls and each pearl reflects a million tiny lights that align with a small part of the sky. But when a comet falls to earth it doesn’t have the sea to carry its message away so it leaves its meaning in a different kind of gift.
The old man turned away and motioned the young woman over to the scorched black ditch left by the meteor. With his hooked finger and thick nail he scratched at the blackened sand until a clear bead rolled to the surface. He nodded encouragingly to her to try and in a few strokes she too uncovered a bright hot pellet of clear glass. Forgetting time, the two knelt over the black sand and searched for marbles under a starbright sky.