River of Stones. Photo by author.
Mama Panchi Walks the Stones
Mama Panchi tied a plastic bonnet around her head. She stepped out into the rain and immediately burst into laughter.
“Qué estoy pensando?” she cackled, throwing her hands up to the sky.
Panchi tilted her head up. Even with the waters already falling, she could see that a greater storm was waiting in the queue. There were no illusions of staying dry and tidy in this rain. She untied the bonnet and set it aside. She removed the combs holding the small white bun together at the back of her head and shook her hair loose. Catching the rain with her face, she invited the drops to fill the valleys of her wrinkled skin.
Panchi removed her shoes as she stepped onto the stone walkway meandering through her gardens. The stones were slick from the rain, and her toes gripped their surfaces. These stones were almost as familiar to Panchi as the soles of her own feet. The intimacy of bare feet on stone was as good as a kiss for the ancestors. Panchi would often say as much to the people who showed up to visit her gardens. As they walked the stones, she’d give them a nudge:
“Try taking off your shoes,” she’d say. “Let your feet kiss the stones. Ándale, un besito para las piedritas que te dan camino.”
She’d wink at them. “If you give them a chance, the stones will kiss you back.”
Who could resist a woman as old as Panchi? A woman whose life was so long it was quickly disappearing into the horizon. Most people took one look at her and mysteriously found themselves removing their shoes and socks too. They hobbled along the paths, spreading out their arms like birds or high-wire artists, teetering and tottering as they found their rhythm with the stones. The sight thrilled Panchi, and she treated the willing people to the full delight of her gaping, toothless smile.
Now as Panchi navigated the stones with her own naked feet, she whispered to each one individually. By the feel of them, she could sense the creek bed where she’d first found their stony bodies. She cooed to them as tenderly as she would to a baby. She gave voice to their names and fed them with prayers. She thanked them for all they’d done for her—for the garden beds they’d helped her raise, the paths they’d given her feet, and the alcove they’d formed with their bodies. They gave shelter to her statues of the Madrecitas, protecting them from the desert sun.
Panchi knew this would be her last walk with the stones. The last time she’d greet them in this body, with these feet. Feeling the reverberations of her offerings to them, the stones rose up to catch Panchi’s feet, cradling their beloved daughter’s steps. She thanked them for claiming her as their own.
The rains fell. The winds howled. The sky grew even darker. In spite of the descending storm, Panchi continued to walk and talk with the stones. She kept her eyes and feet fixed on them, step by step. Time began to grow thin and translucent. Even as her feet walked and her lips moved, Panchi’s mind wandered to different smells and sounds, people and stories, worlds outside time.
Eventually, Panchi could no longer register the sensations of the rain barreling down. She altogether lost track of where she was going or how long she’d been walking. At some point, she felt the warmth of sunlight on her back again.
“Ya ves!” she laughed, stretching her arms up to the sky. “Who says a viejita can’t outlast a storm?”
Panchi looked up expecting to see the sun peeking out through parting clouds. Instead, her eyes were greeted by the rustling canopy of cottonwoods. She stood transfixed to the sight of these gentle giants towering above her. There were no stands of alamos anywhere near the vicinity of her hillside garden.
Panchi’s breath caught and her heart began to race. Where exactly had she walked? She didn’t dare move. Squeezing her eyes shut, Panchi called down to her feet, trying to find her way back to the stony pathways of her garden. But her feet were sinking into damp earth. A bubbling current, playful and impish, lapped up against her right ankle. Panchi could smell the willows and the mossy stones. She knew exactly where she was.