July 16, 2007
The Stolen Pot
The Mexican man invites me into his house because he wants to show me the goodness of his life. The strong front door, the cinder block walls, the wooden eating table. It is a small house, and I enter with children pressing against my legs, his sons and daughters.
He knows I am interested in the dead, so he points to the table where a clutch of dried grass has been arranged in a ceramic jar.
I recognize the jar. It is about 700 years old, pre-Columbian kitchenware common in northern Chihuahua, a vessel that would have held broth or water.
Its exterior has been spray painted gold. He explains his wife didn't like the color, so he painted it for her.
Looking at the golden vessel I laugh nervously. I also find jars when I am out, but I do not touch them. I whisper when I see their curved lips sticking up from the sand. I leave them there, as I always have, resting in the wild museum of the land.
I ask where it came from, and he happily tells me he found it in the ground near a ruin. He says I should have seen the big one, the painted one. It was beautiful, many bright colors, but it was too big to carry and he and his friends dropped it by accident. Nothing but pieces now.
Looking at the pot on the table, he asks how old it is. His wife comes out of the kitchen to hear my answer, drying her hands on a dish towel.
I tell them maybe 500, 700 years. He smiles.
I told you so, he says.
She nods with a small, proud smile.
I do not know what to say to them, if I should frown on their choice of stolen décor, or if I should commend them for giving the pot what it was made for, a house with children, a man and a woman, and a good kitchen.
When I leave, he gives me an axe head he found, a clunky basalt tool used for chopping wood in prehistoric times, and probably for caving in human skulls during conflicts over water or corn or family. He kept it in the garden for many years with about ten other axe heads, all looking alike. I tell him it is too much, too fine a gift. He insists, because we are friends now, because I know his uncle and his father-in-law. I say I wouldn't know what to do with it, really. He pushes it into my hands and looks into my eyes the way Mexican men do only when they mean it. I tell him thank you. I think about returning it to the desert where it came from, but I can't, not a gift from a man of few but respectable possessions.
I drive it across the border, telling officers with mirrors for sunglasses that no such things are in my truck. I take it home and put it on my office floor. Over the years it starts blending into my disheveled stacks of books and papers until it looks like it did in the Mexican man's garden, an old ornament. Every once in a while I trip over it in the night, stubbed toe bleeding, me hopping around cursing the names of gods I have never known.