This is an early edit. Subsequent versions include the following passage as a preface (I think it works better just laying it out there):
Apache tear: (noun) 1. A small, ovoid to spherical mass of black volcanic glass with colorless crystalline inclusions, found predominantly in the Jemez caldera and its associated ejecta field near the town of Los Alamos, New Mexico. 2. A talisman against grief. According to Native American legend, which correlates with an historical event that occurred during the Indian Wars of the 19th century, a group of Apache women who had survived a massacre wept for so long, and with such great sorrow, that their tears soaked into the earth and were crystallized into stone. It is said that these women had wept enough for every person in the world, and that whoever came into possession of one these artifacts would never weep again.
Original title was:
WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE A BOY
You are a 13-year-old boy, and you are sleeping, and you hear your mother’s voice saying, “Wake up honey. Open your eyes.”
She tells you it is Saturday, and the day is beautiful, and she has made you breakfast, and it is your favorite. You understand on a certain level that a pancake is a pancake, but when your mother makes it, it’s different.
So you open your eyes, and you see through the window that it is summer, and it is a fine day. The snow has retreated to the very top of the mountains, and life is blooming. It blooms in the brilliant green of the grass, and the blue-green of the Ponderosa Pines on the side of the mountain, and gray-green of the sage down in the desert. You think perhaps you will ride up to the river. The stoneflies are gone and forgotten but the waters are warming and the trout are hungry and they will rise to a fly. They will be less picky later but an Adams will probably work and an Elk Hair Caddis will almost always work. These are things you have learned and know well.
Your bike is tuned and fast and it has tires that are not quite new and scrubbed in well. You will go through town mach schnell, and you will laugh when the old ladies tell you to slow down. There will be the lung-busting run up past the lab to the rim of the caldera, and the steep descent through the aspen forest on the other side of the ridge, and when you come out of the trees you will see the vast meadow where the herd of elk lives. You will stop above the meadow, as always, to see if you can spot them. Afterwards you will walk the bike through the waist-high grass, hunting for Apache tears, which are globules of snowflake obsidian. The Native people say these are healing stones, that the tiny flakes of clear silica glass — the “snowflakes” — are the frozen tears of a woman, and if you find one you will never cry again. They are rare and only found in this part of the caldera and you look for them whenever you are here. Eventually you come to the East Fork; and you will choose a segment, and you will fish it thoroughly as your father had taught you.
But you remember as well that it is the summer when Eliana, the Italian girl, is in town, as this is when her father comes to Los Alamos to work at the lab. What he does, precisely, is a mystery; Eliana has said, with a serious face and twinkling eyes, that if she told you, she would have to kill you. Since she is your truest and best friend, there is a puzzling intimacy to that statement; and the sentiment seems both frightening and thrilling.
When you first met years ago, she was an agreeable waif who was unusually intelligent but shy about it, something you could understand, and that combination of factors made it OK to be friends with a girl. Things changed a lot last year, when she showed up as something less waif-like and something considerably more elegant; a girl less inclined to dig for pottery shards, but more agreeable to staying up half the night in the backyard looking at stars through your telescope. But you had changed too, and were no longer fundamentally indisposed to hanging out with girls, which was unfortunate because by now you were afraid of them. But this was Eliana and she was exceptionally cool about certain things. Even your mother made a comment about her hotness. The term she used was “adorable” but you knew what she meant. You tried to deny it and knew it was undeniable, and so did your mother, but you could see through it and see she was still Eliana and so things were good.
So that’s what you did: you set up your telescope in the darkest corner of the yard and she came over several times, partially to look, mostly to talk it seems, and that was fine. Night in the high desert is quiet and cold, and your backyard conversations were spoken in whispers. You showed her planets and nebulae and she was entranced. She whispered to you in Italian, so close you could feel the heat of her breath on your ear, and she smelled of bubblegum and sage. She spoke, among other things, about the astronomical clock in the Piazza dei Signori, and how you would surely love it. She said when you come to Italy someday she will show you that, and she will also show you the frescoes in the Cappella degli Scrovegni, which to her is one of the most beautiful things in the world; and also would take you to the Piazza delle Erbe, where in the evening you could spy on the college kids who would be drinking wine and flirting and talking rudely, and then you would run home over streets with cobblestones the size of baseballs. She told you about the church of her namesake, how it had been built up over the centuries, starting in Roman times, and could show you the part that was originally a temple of Apollo; and that reminded you of the times you went hiking in the mountains to find Puebloan ruins, and you began to believe that the adventures you share can translate from one world to another, and you wondered if you and Eliana have a separate world.
You understood this because you had lived in a separate world for a while. You remember when you told her your secret. While you were telling her, as the words were coming out of your mouth, you realized she already knew, because everyone knew and it was only a secret in your own mind. It occurred to you she had anticipated this conversation, and had waited patiently for it. She listened with no discernible reaction; and when you were finished speaking, she simply said, “Wanna go look for artifacts?” Some time after that, your mother had called her your “little girlfriend,” and you firmly explained to her that Eliana was your friend because she was the only kid you knew who would actually use the word “artifact” in a sentence to describe arrowheads and pottery shards, and that was why she was your friend and not your girlfriend. Later you realized that your mother would then know that when you used the term subsequently, and you always would, that it wasn’t your word, but Eliana’s. It was the same when you uttered the name of her home town. Your English teacher corrected you once, saying the correct pronunciation was “Padua,” and you haughtily ignored her, and thought of saying something in Italian to show her how ignorant she was of such things. Something Eliana would say. These were words that belonged to the two of you, and that was not something you would normally share with your mother. But if she figured all of that out, she never made it known.
It was always a pleasant surprise when Eliana came to town each summer. She would come rolling by in brand new sneakers and Mother would say “Eliana is here” and you would say, “I’ll be danged, you again.” That was the joke. “You again” at the beginning, punch in the arm at the end. You seldom thought of her during the year, except for this year, when it has been your habit to think about her twice a day, once in the evening and once in the morning, in bed. Each day you think about about whispers in Italian, about bubblegum and sage, and try to understand why thinking of such things is both painful and comforting, both at the same time.
You wonder if you might ride by to see if she is home, and then you are struck with the conviction that she is certainly there, with absolutely no doubt in your mind, and you stay under the covers for a while and think about that.
Last time you saw her, she acted weirdly. Instead of the usual punch on the arm she gave you a tiny Apache tear, which you remember because she was so thrilled to find it. You remember that when she gave it to you her fingers rested in your palm for precisely three seconds before she let go of the rock, and she looked at you to show she had not done so accidentally. You have been friends for long enough to where you can communicate with a look, and for her a look could be an insult, or a joke, or a dare; but this look was none of those things, and her eyes were blue and darker than the sky and her mother said something and she yelled at her mother in Italian, quite spitefully, while her mother laughed and she looked at you again and said “excuse my mother who is being a butthole,” and then whispered “Ciao tesoro” and ran to the car and didn’t look at you when they drove off. It seemed odd, because “tesoro” was what her father called her. You remember her father always called you “il polpetto” and she thought that was funny and called you that sometimes and wouldn’t tell you what it meant but you had never heard her call you “tesoro.” It was a word her mother used for everyone but Eliana used it for no one, to your knowledge. Eliana was good about teaching you Italian, especially insults and curse words, and for a while you made a mental note to yourself to have her translate it, and then thought better of it. It’s not that you couldn’t figure it out. It’s that at first you didn’t want to figure it out. And then, you did.