Mystery Of The Stone
By Peter Aleshire
Condensed from Arizona Highway
as printed in Readers Digest November 1994
Something furtive about the way the little old man rummaged through the trunk of his sedan captured my attention.
He cast a nervous glance over his shoulder, then lifted out something heavy, wrapped in cloth.
His unexpected arrival had broken my absorption with the undulating hills of Blue Mesa, in Arizona's Petrified Forest.
I don't think he saw me as he labored across the road out into the desert. Curious, I followed him at a distance.
He moved with difficulty, stopping now and then to catch his breath. Finally, he reached the hump of a small hill that formed the lower edge of Blue Mesa. He calculated the slope, then hefted his burden and started down. I hurried forward, but by the time I reached the top of the slope, he had already gained the bottom. He walked perhaps ten yards to the edge
of a small gully, then knelt in the dirt and gently unwrapped his bundle.
The piece of petrified wood appeared to be about 15 pounds, a splintered chunk from the base of a tree, looking astonishingly wooden although it had turned to stone 225 million years ago. It glittered with crystals and gleamed green and red and blue from the smooth jasper that had filled in the tree's living cells.
The old man bent down and stroked the stone lovingly. Then he lifted his eyes to the horizon and sat motionless for a long time. At length, he rose with a final caress of his stone. I scrambled down the hill. He glanced from me to his rock and back again, then smiled sheepishly.
"Beautiful rock," I said casually.
"I had to bring it back," he said, answering my unspoken question.
"When did you find it?"
"Sixty years ago. I was 13. My brother and I took it right about here and hid it in the car. My father was upset when
he found it, but we were back in New York by then."
We fell easily into conversation. He'd carried that rock with him through a life full of strange turnings. He'd been a standout shortstop in high school, enlisted in the Army Air Forces in World War II, married a nurse, got divorced. He built houses, started a business, grew rich, lost it all in a real-estate crash, started over and made a second success.
Along the way, he found the love of his life at an ice rink. They married and raised four kids. One was a lawyer, one a geologist, one was raising a family of her own. Their fourth child stepped on a land mine in Vietnam. That had been the hardest loss he'd ever had to bear . . . until his wife died three years ago. Next to all of that, he said, his emphysema seemed hardly worth mentioning. The doctors didn't hold out much hope.
The diagnosis was what had decided him. All his life, he'd thought the rock was his. Now it seemed he had merely borrowed it. He vowed to return to the desert whose memory he'd harbored all his life and bring back the rock he'd loved with such a guilty twinge through the years.
The sun had set by the time we reached the end of his tale. He sighed and wheezing sound. He patted his stone one last time; then I helped him up the loose slope. We turned back at the rim of the hill. The rock was now only a black dot in the larger darkness of the hillside.
In the deepening twilight, I could just make out the faint smile on my companion's face, a traveler caught between relief and loss within sight of his journey's end.