Is there any news more significant than the weather? It’s sunny here, and in the 40s, and I’m shading my eyes against the low sun and watching the flash of birds’ wings as they go in and out of the feeders on my parents’ back porch. I’m thinking for some reason of an artifact we had in our museum when we were kids: a piece of soapstone with a hole bored through it, just big enough to fit a finger through. The stone bulged around the hole and tapered toward both ends, and thinking about it now, I guess it must’ve been some sort of tool — perhaps an unfinished axe, or some strange kind of mallet. But whoever gave it to us (I can’t remember now) told us only that it was made by the Indians, so I treated it with the reverence owed the inexplicable, and it never once occurred to me that the hole might’ve been bored for something as prosaic as a tool handle. I thought it was marvelous the way someone would think to create a hole like that and surround it with stone, like a portable well. I would turn it over in my hand and wonder about the time it must’ve taken, and the single-minded focus. Only a hunter would have that kind of patience, I thought, and imagined men with spears going up against a wooly mammoth. Viewed on end, the stone was shaped like a human eye, and I wondered if it might not have some vaguely religious significance, like the god’s-eyes I had learned to make in third grade by weaving yarn around crossed popsickle sticks. A couple of those artifacts of my childhood still remain among my parents’ massive collection of Christmas tree ornaments, and get hung up on the tree every year. As for the soapstone artifact, I’m not sure where that ended up, but I think it’s safe to say that I learned far more from it than I ever would’ve if someone had simply told me what it was.

3 Replies to “Artifact”

  1. Peter – You’re right, should’ve tagged this “via negativa,” I guess.

    Zhoen – Well, it’s all a matter of degrees, of course. I wish our language had a middle term, between prose and poetry, for things like prose poems, lyrical essays, and call-and-response sermons. Well-made tool handles would probably qualify for the adjectival form of that as-yet undefined category.

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