She said a little bit of an artist is in each of their works. A snippet of soul, a small fragment of oneself. “That’s why they burn out,” the old woman sitting in the sun in Winslow, AZ, once told me. “And that’s why I am careful only to put a little bit of myself into each of my sculptures, so I have enough of me left before I die.”
She talks about Elvis and James Dean, about van Gogh and Hölderlin, and I am surprised she even knows the latter. Years later a second American would amaze me by knowing him, too, none have before or since. She talks about Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix, how they put all their soul into their work and perished when there was nothing left. Then she asks me what I do. “I tell stories,” I say, and look out over Homolovi State Park behind the trailer she lives in. The yard has hundreds of statues, some smaller than a matchbox, some taller than me, all depicting the same Anasazi warriors on their stay here seven hundred years ago as they migrated north to join the Hopi tribes and become the rulers of the land until the White Man came.
She’s Hopi, she says, couldn’t think to live anywhere but here, “where the souls still dwell.” She looks at me, furrows her brows, and cocks her head. “Ah, a storyteller. Yes, I know your kind. You collect souls, souls like mine. Where will you take mine?” “Maybe I will just hold on to it,” I respond. “The precious ones need a special place.”
Hours later, the sun has set behind the hills, I am making camp in a makeshift tent at the petrified forest’s inofficial campground. The sound of the animals of the night, small and yet painful or even lethal, around me, I look into the stars. Suns, millions of years ago, sent their light onto a voyage to Earth, a warm and bright starlit sky to contrast with the cold desert air. Where will I take hers?
Truth is, when it comes to the matter of souls, she’s right. We’re traders in stories, sellers of others’ songs. We’re servants to the greatness of strangers and friends alike, teller of tales. Which is amazing, if you think about it. As traders in souls our work contains not only a small fragment of ours, each and every story contains fragments of all the souls we collected prior. There’s a little bit of her in everything I do, a little bit of the old veteran in a bar in Barstow, the runaway bride in a motel in Cairo, IL, or the traveling salesman in Wenatchee, WA.
Our tales have no intended consequence, our morals no demands. We’re not changing the world, it’s those whose stories we tell who are the heroes, the changers, makers, and creators of meaning. We don’t matter, we’re just the messenger. And that’s a good thing.