A Story About Stones/ memoir and 2 poems by Jan Zlotnik Schmidt

Lanzorote, The Canary Islands


Jet black lava stones
couched in my open palms
taken from the heart of a country
I dream of what is lost
The slow rush of wind rustling waves
The salt tang of the seas
The pulsing of memory


A stern security guard at the luggage conveyor belt at Arrecife airport took the stones from me.  Three small, smooth jet black lava stones, perfectly shaped. The size of lima beans.  He found them in my tote bag and shook his second finger at me, mouthing, “No. NO.”  I watched him in disbelief.

What had I done?  Why did he confiscate my stones?  Those pebbles, small rounds of lava, resembling obsidian, would have rested on my dresser with my other rocks from the beaches in Lanzarote.  I was puzzled.  Was I trying to abscond with rare archeological finds?  Were lava stones, a precious commodity, ready to be carved into rings or necklaces?  Were they considered part of the natural reserve where I found them on the beach at Famara?  Not meant to be taken out of that post-volcanic land.  

At the time I was stunned. Some part of the country, of my memories, was unceremoniously ripped from me.  On the day that I found the stones, the surf was pounding against the shore, jagged cliffs descended to the sea, and one solitary naked swimmer far away from me was walking into the waves—I saw his lean, tanned body.  When I found the stones, I cradled them in my closed fists, felt the warmth of the intense tropical sun.  Later that afternoon a mist settled on the beach; the islands that you could see perfectly on a clear day became ghostly imprints of a lost world.    

Once home, I mourned their loss, the perfect offerings for my altar to that island world. I couldn’t articulate why I felt bereft or why they held so much significance for me other than as souvenirs of a wonderful beach holiday.  “What do they mean to you?” I asked my husband.  His response—“A void.  Nothing.”  He couldn’t imagine a story about stones.  

I remembered another item I had lost: a postcard—a souvenir from the home of the Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago who had lived in exile from Portugal on the island in the town of Tias until his death.  The card featured a photograph of an old man’s hands with three small black pebbles nested in his open palms.  Set against a dark background, the hands were white and wrinkled, the stones small and dark like seeds.   Somehow in transit, the postcard fell out of my journal where I had placed it.  Why had the photographer created this pose?  What was the significance of the three stones?  The Three Kings?  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?  The Three Fates?  Past, Present, and Future?  Sea, Wind, and Fire—the essential forces shaping the island.  For Timanfaya, the volcano on Lanzarote, was still active, still burning underground. 

I want to walk the pebbled path to the beach.  I want to nest the rocks in my hand, for they hold the residue of salt and tides, scorched earth, valleys of deep gray and desert rocks scorched by the sun and scored with lichen.  They bear the traces of a land blasted by pumice, rivers of magna coursing to the sea.   A wind-swept world burnt down to its essence.  

I want to dream of the slow way wind, sea, and sun drift through me.  I want to be cleansed by the sweep of the tides.  The sea seeping into my skin, lapping at the crack at my elbow, filling my body, dissolving loss and grief until I float on a sea of forgetfulness, my body buoyed up by the waves.

Jose Saramago Holding Black Pebbles from Timanfaya

Look at these pebbles.  These black stones, these vestiges of desire.  

Listen.  There still is life in this scarred land.  Still life in this black volcanic soil, obdurate as it seems.  Still life in the crusted lava fields, the black slabs, jagged slate, coursing down to the sea.

Follow the path to the edge of the tides, kneel down slowly, caress each wetted stone, feel the sun’s warmth held within.  Remember the rivers of magma, fires, and ash.   Rivers that flamed down, scorched deep cuts into the earth, into the ocean bed.

This land will withstand all:  African winds, siroccos of sand, waves crashing against the shore.  The water, aqua blue, still fills rock pools where limpets cling to stone.  
See the slits, air caught in each pocked rock. Stones mottled by the surges of the sea. 

There always will be dark times, dark words, stories like black pebbles, strewn across the land.

Traces of what’s left.  


Jan Zlotnik Schmidt is a frequent contributor to Lightwood. Read her reviews and writings in previous issues by going to our Search Link. Her recent book is Over the Moon...Gone: The Vanishing Act of Bess Houdini published by Palooka Press.

Jan Zlotnik Schmidt, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz, taught autobiography, creative writing, American and contemporary literature, women’s Literature, , and Holocaust literature courses.  Her most recent book is Over the Moon...Gone: The Vanishing Act of Bess Houdini. Her work has been published in numerous journals and has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize.  She has had two volumes of poetry published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She had this memory, 2000) and two collections of autobiographical essays, Women/Writing/Teaching (SUNY Press, 1998) and Wise Women:  Reflections of Teachers at Mid-Life, co-authored with Dr. Phyllis R. Freeman (Routledge, 2000). Her full length volume, Foraging for Light was published in September 2019 by Finishing Line Press. She has a B.A. from University of Rochester (1969); an M.A. from University of Wisconsin, Madison (1970); and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University (1977).

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