top of page

The One Who Left a Handprint in that Place

Paul Burnham

This ancient stone wall has collapsed. The clay mortar that held it together lies shattered on the ground. This container—the size of a modest kitchen—is broken open. Nothing of worth is left to be picked up and carried out of this place. The Fremont people lived here—in the Desert Southwest—around 900 A.D. The Ancestral Puebloans arrived after them, and by 1200 A.D. they too had vanished. Others passed through these canyons—Franciscan priests, cattle ranchers, cattle rustlers, Mormon pioneers.


Behind this dilapidated wall, where the aboriginal people once stored maize against famine and war, the room is now open to the sky—and to finches and mice and coyotes and whatever else would lick up the last kernels of a people that disappeared nearly a thousand years ago. Morning sunlight pours through the breach. The floor is clear except for a few jagged potsherds and stripped corncobs and the telltale mouse droppings. They return here—the mice—with the collective memory of seeds. They imagine someone might leave a coiled-ceramic jar on the floor—full of maize kernels or nopal stems or piñon nuts. I pick up a corncob and examine every recess. But only the toothless sockets remain. I turn the cob over and look more closely. Maybe I will find a seed that has been overlooked for a thousand years. But my imagination is as wild and foolish as that of the mice; these cobs are worn and smooth from being turned over and inspected a hundred thousand times. Not a single seed has escaped—not in this granary and not anywhere else nearby. Every new generation of mice has come here, looking in the same cracks and crevices for one last bit of the ancient food. Nothing is left here.


I find shade and drink from my canteen. Now, approaching midday, the ground is too warm for any life to come to the surface. Even the snakes hide. And the lizards suffocate in their shelters as they wait for the sun to pass out of the southern sky. The sun has cast a catatonic spell on the earth. Only the ravens and vultures are immune. The ravens engage in a series of dogfights two hundred feet above this granary. Their tok-tok-tok echoes up and down these cliffs. Except for the birds, I could mistake this place for an alien landscape. No movement. No life. No water.


But evidence of life abounds here. A people flourished in this place. The ground is covered with potsherds and the conchoidal flakes of hand-worked obsidian—a rock that doesn’t naturally occur here. Someone carried it from volcanic lands far to the south. Clay beads have fallen here. They are easily seen—blue and white against the red earth, smooth and round against the angular shapes of this country. Bones—bleached white—cannot hide against the baked reds and oranges and browns of the land. These are not human bones and they are not old. Those were devoured long ago by porcupines and rodents in search of dietary minerals.


The ravens ride the current of warm air just as it rises from the canyon. A half mile above them, vultures soar and circle on the same current. But here on the side of this canyon, the air is nearly still. And the stillness draws my attention into this place. For a moment, I imagine it alive with hunters and gatherers, and with children climbing ladders to their homes in the sides of these cliffs. Water runs at the bottom of this canyon. Not now, but then.


Relics of life are scattered on the ground and built into the cliffs. I feel a certain reverence for the artifacts, a sense that these grounds are hallowed—not because any rite occurred here or because of some sacred offering made by the ancients. How could I know this? Their story remains hidden. Lost.


I feel this reverence precisely because I stand where other humans stood, and I simply feel a kinship with them. Our ancestors were separated by oceans and continents. But today we are only separated by time. We have the same desires, the same appetites, the same aspirations.

In other places, when I have been still—as I am here this morning—I have felt this sacred bond with family, even strangers. I once waited quietly in a doctor’s office with my daughter. An elderly woman sat next to me and waited as well. I closed the book I was reading and inhaled traces of hairspray and hand lotion and fabric softener. I closed my eyes and imagined the hidden story this woman carried with her.


When I opened my eyes, she was turning the pages of a pop culture magazine. On her left hand, on her ring finger, was an exquisite silver and turquoise ring. I love the story of turquoise—its provenance and its conveyance—and I knew I would have to move carefully to tease this story from its hiding place. Very gently I touched the back of her hand. “That is a beautiful turquoise ring. Where did it come from?”

She gazed at her ring and smiled a little, remembering.  “My husband was a silversmith. He made this ring.”


“What a treasure. It’s really beautiful.”


“My husband fished a lot. High in the mountains. Ten thousand feet, sometimes. I couldn’t go with him. The altitude made me sick. Terrible headaches, you know?”


“Yes. I get them too.”


“I complained to him that I couldn’t go. Not long after that, he put away his fishing poles and bought a Jeep. He took us around—the kids too. We explored. We used to find old bottles and arrowheads. I know you’re not supposed to pick those up.”


“Where did you live?”


“Salida, Colorado. But I was born in Chicago. Have you ever been into that country—where you can find arrowheads and things?”


“I have. My parents took us there. My great uncle had a Jeep.”


“I’ve liked the time I have lived. To live then and now. I always told my children and grandchildren that I am not sure what it will be like to live in their time. Harder, I suppose. But that’s what my parents told me. Especially during World War II. But I liked that time. And now.”

Her words felt like a whisper that penetrated my heart. I wanted to hear more. “How many children do you have?”


“Three. Well, four, I guess.”

I didn’t ask about the fourth child. But I wondered why she equivocated. It seemed strange that a mother wouldn’t have a definitive answer to that question.


“Well, your ring is very pretty, and I’m glad your husband decided to buy a Jeep.”


She smiled at this and held up her other hand—to show me her other ring. It was another turquoise, darker green, set in burnished silver. “He made this one too.”


The doctor came for her and I offered my arm as she stood. Her hand was warm and her grip steady and strong. She went with the doctor and I was left with a memory of her handprint on my arm.

A finch flies through the breach of this broken wall and lands on a pile of stones. I tell him there is no maize here, no seeds. But he knows this already, I think, and is here for shade and to wait out the hottest hours of the day. The open country below us becomes pliable and then molten in the midday heat. Convective air currents bend the sunlight. I wonder if this place is so different from the surface of the sun. But I have also found refuge with this finch. Both of us wait in the shade. And on the side of this canyon I feel a kinship with strangers, with people who passed this way fifty generations ago—who also found refuge here. I can’t see them. I only see evidence of their lives.


I have found similar evidence in the black-sand deserts of Peru and the inland jungles of Belize. And once, in a remote and high pass of the Great American Desert, I found a piece of hand-worked flint—likely cast aside by a passing hunter, pursuing game far into the mountains. And at the back of a cave—filled with bones—I found a long-traveled seashell five hundred miles from the ocean.


Though I rarely collected these things, I confess I was acquisitive once; I plucked an obsidian arrowhead from an inland shoreline of white and grey stones. How had no one found it for these hundreds of years? No one else would come that way. Dust and water and darkness would cover it. I justified taking it that way. No one would find it there; no one would miss it. But after a year, it became heavy in my hands. Burdensome. I sent it off to be displayed in a glass case for others to see, for others to carry.


Next to this broken stone wall, worked-flint flakes litter the ground. There are arrowheads here, too. Broken. Chipped. Discarded. I take a few photographs and then ascend to an undisturbed Puebloan dwelling that looks out on the larger valley. I am not the first to rediscover this place, but others have left it alone, and so I find it undefiled and whole. At the entrance to the dwelling—a mud and rock enclosure—the ground is covered with larger pieces of shattered pottery. Painted zig-zag lines and scalloped rims reveal the attention given during the creation of the once-intact bowls. A midden of flaked obsidian and flint is evidence of the work these people carried through many generations.

The sun is high now. I haven’t eaten lunch, and my belly rumbles in protest and pleading. I drink water and then pause to let the rumbling stop. I’ll eat later. I won’t desecrate this place with my crackers and cheese and salami.


I move carefully here—stepping between larger stones, avoiding the potsherds, listening. If I am quiet, I may tease a story from this hiding place.


I wait adjacent to the entrance of the dwelling, asking permission to enter. Only when my heart slows and my breathing becomes more shallow do I bow and step through the entrance. I won’t touch these walls. My own fingerprint in this place would confound any story that might be told here.


I sit on the floor—perhaps five feet by six. The room holds cool air. Though the dwelling has a southern exposure, the overhanging sandstone dome shields it from the midday sun. And the sun may only reach this alcove at sunrise and sunset—and then only for a few days surrounding the winter solstice, when the warmth may have been welcome.

The intense sunlight has overwhelmed any color in the valley; but the warm reds and oranges and pinks glow inside this room. I sit for a few moments longer, quiet, quieting myself, listening to my breathing, waiting for a story to unfold, feeling for a whisper that might penetrate my heart.


A wren has come into the canyon, and her descending call follows me into this little room. Her voice is sharp and clear in the dry desert air, then quiet. No story arises in this moment. I turn slowly to stand, to leave. My eyes have adjusted to the gentle hues of mitigated sunlight pouring through the narrow doorway, and I now see the deliberate workmanship of those who built these walls.

As I turn to leave, I notice the stone lintel above the doorway, and I pause, suddenly full of the presence of these ancient kin. Cast on this lintel is the dried mud print of a human hand, clearly outlined and revealing the creases in the author's own palm—a red-mud signature, drying for a thousand years on red stone. I hold my own hand over the print. The handprint is small, smaller than my own hand. I pause and inhale the cool, earthy air. I then bow again, low, and carefully step out of the room into the blinding sunlight reflected off the valley floor.


I have no relic or implement from that dwelling—no beads, no pottery, no arrowheads to burden me. I carry only the memory of those things, and the memory of the one who left a handprint in that place.

bottom of page