In Hurrow there lived a woman who possessed a stone that could tell people what they wanted to know. Many said it was a splinter from one of the great judging stones, hewn from the mountains by distant generations and installed in the courts of the lowland towns. Why this splinter – large enough in its own right – had come to the village no-one could remember. It was immovable. No-one cared to think of a time when it had not been there. Few could recall a time when the woman herself had not been there: living with the stone as if it were her child, glaring through the half-opened door of her hut, keeping the visitors waiting when she felt like it, taking their money.
The stone itself did not speak, disappointing some who paid to ask of it. But the woman heard the questing, peered into the stone and, after some thought, gave the answer that was required.
The stone did not respond to all questions. It was reluctant to predict and was not keen on questions of plain fact, even when they related to what had already been. Sometimes it would not tell how a thing should be done or why. Instead, what it most enjoyed were the stickiest, most slippery questions of all: what should I do? What is right?
A young woman came from across the mountains. ‘Should I have my baby?’ she asked.
‘No: the shame it would bring would be worse than your grief. Your community cannot support this mouth without a provider. Lose the baby; keep your respect.’
A man came from across the lake and asked if he should steal from his rich employer to buy tobacco for his wife, who had the melancholy. ‘Of course: your employer will not miss a little but it will make every difference to your wife.’
Whatever people came to ask, the woman led them into her hut and sat before the stone as if it were a fire in winter. The askers strained to see what the stone showed, but they were on the wrong side, the stone was angled away from them and they caught, at best, glimpses of figures weaving in and out, grouping, shouting. They could not see who there people were or what they were about.
One day a young man came to Hurrow who could not be answered. His question was sound enough. The stone wanted to answer it. But it could not. The woman looked up at him across the stone, showing her surprise. ‘Are you a hermit?’ she suggested.
‘Repeat your question; I will try again.’
‘Should I speak against my mother, who harried my father to death?’
‘There is nothing outstanding about the question. But the stone will not settle it. Come back tomorrow.’
‘No,’ said the man. ‘I must make my decision before then. I must make it alone.’
So he went and made his decision. But he wanted to know why the stone could not answer him. He had been told that the stone often rejected questions and that sometimes it was slow in answering those it accepted. But it seemed that never before had it failed so completely. He thought that perhaps the question itself was the problem after all, so he found out more about the questions that had been answered before.
Several were of a similar ilk. A boy had asked if he should expose the bully of his friend. ‘No, no. You want to be known as a snitch?’ the stone had replied.
A woman wanted to know if she should tell the authorities of abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of a neighbour. ‘Yes, you must find the strength to do this: children unknown are depending on you.’
The young man learned nothing about the problem, but he began to feel a peculiarity on the answers the stone had been able to give. There seemed little to link them as if they came on the wind. And yet they were so strong, so definite. And they were always accepted. Early in his studies he discarded the idea that the stone merely reflected the wish of the asker. Would people pay for something apparently so straightforward? Some perhaps, but not as many as he saw before the woman’s door on the days he happened to pass through the village. In any case the evidence did not bear out this theory. People left the hut tear-stained, groping for the courage to do as the stone advised. Others appeared relieved, wiping away the sweat that had rolled from genuine anxiety. It is true that people, many people, do need their desires and inclinations confirmed. But there was something more to the service that the stone performed. The man wanted to know what it was.
One day he stopped on his way through Hurrow and told the woman she needed a helper. ‘What help do I need?’ she asked in a voice mixing alarm with contempt. The young man saw that she would not share the stone with him. His eyes ran around the room then rested on the broom in the corner.
‘You are so busy with the askers, you need someone to sweep for you and clean the brass, and keep people away while you rest.’
‘Yes, I do need that.’ Then she looked at him again and recognised him. She shuddered before squeezing herself into a smile. ‘You want to know why the stone would not answer you.’
‘Yes. Do you know?’
‘Perhaps. But if I tell you, who will do my sweeping, eh?’ Her laughter, forced above its natural volume, made its own attempt to free the cobwebs from the beams.
‘Who taught you to read the stone?’ he asked her suddenly.
Her smile grew. ‘A very old man who had waited all his life for someone with the patience to follow him. I was a skinny thing, beaten by my preaching father, whose word I could not shake. I had the patience; and I had the understanding. I hope you’re good with that broom.’ She did not expect him to stay.
The young man swept for the best part of a year, growing tired and frustrated by it. He knew the game the woman was playing, but he did not care for her opinion enough to pretend that she was not winning. He realised that she would never accept him as her apprentice – or, at least, not until far more time had passed than he could tolerate. He started, therefore, to catch a study of the stone in any way her could.
The woman was most distracted when she had the askers with her. The broom began to sneak its entrance about half way through the audience, when all parties were most absorbed in the question and the emerging reply. As his fleeting fellow curious had seen, so the young man saw the figures of people unknown to him shuffling to and fro, bumping and pushing and then gathering together. His excuse for being in the room never stretched to the whole performance. The woman would cough and then stab at him with knowing eyes. He would begin to brush again where he had started, but he knew her limits and his own. A few minutes after the cough, the broom would train out to sift for gems in the dust.
In time the man noticed a pattern in the speed with which different professions were answered. The pattern did not always hold, which is why he had not seen it at first. However, as a general rule the fastest to be answered were holy men and politicians; far slower were shepherds and solitaries, advocates and healers. Other patterns emerged, though these were even harder to grasp. A man who looked as if he was fulfilling a dare by coming, who had difficulty in concentrating or in keeping his grin from taking over the event, gave the woman and her stone great strife. A woman who was at once all smiles and amiability, who complimented the other woman on her wisdom and appearance, adjusting her own as she did so, was so easy to answer that at first the man assumed that her questions had been rejected. He had never seen anyone come and go so quickly and there was no time for the usual entry of the spying broom.
There was something about the care which people took – the care they took to pleased others, or, in its less attractive manifestation, the care they took to appear well to others. This level of care produced rapid answers. Those of more casual demeanour, who perhaps did not notice they were standing in his light, or did not mind being interrupted mid belch or caught dozing in the waiting hall: these were harder to answer. Again the generalisations did not hold faultless. But there were sub-patterns by way of explanation. There were those who particularly wanted to be interrupted mid-belch. These people were apparently just as easy to answer as the holy men, although their questions and the replies were different.
Gradually the young man made sense of his observations and when he came close enough to an understanding of the stone, he confronted the woman with it.
‘The stone is a mirror. It reflects not the asker but the people who look over their shoulders. The people who group around them, who whisper in their ears, who stamp on their feet. For some it is those whom they watch from a distance, their prophets. The stone lets them circle and settle until it can see where the lines of power run. Who turns the eye, quickens the breath, who thinks for them, though they do not know it. Then it tells what they want to know: that is, what the Others would applaud. Because moral decisions depend on the audience. The audience writes the play.’
The woman remained silent.
‘But why won’t it answer me?’
‘I fear for you.’
‘Fear for me? Or are you afraid of me?’
‘Both. You have a great gift that it also a curse: the gift of independence. Never before have I met with man or woman who did not suck their moral sustenance from the marrow of their ancestor’s bones. Indeed, I did not believe it was possible. How can anything be decided if you make no reference to gathered opinion? You may chose your influence – perhaps – but influence you must have. How? How?’
‘You forget that I came to you because I could not answer.’
‘You could not answer, but you could ask. That in itself needs a family behind it.’
‘I can’t explain it, I never realised it was a problem.’
‘What, have you never seen that others treat you differently? That they are uneasy with you? That they ask your opinion rarely but with true anticipation? Have you seen that some few admire you greatly while others will not speak with you. That is the sign of the man who thinks for himself. That man I thought could not be.’
‘What is your fear for me?’ he asked softly.
‘You are the man who does not mind the thoughts of others, whose reference is not to his peers. Whose opinion does not bubble up from the shoal of minnows buffeting about him. What could not such a man do – or have done to him?’
‘Surely there are many like me.’
‘There are men and women of principle who consider their verdicts and do their best to cast aside prejudice, ignorance, personal advantage. But that, in itself, it not enough. They can still be answered. The stone knows to whom they listen: to a god, a political creed, an honourable family tradition – to these, or bits of them, together with others less worthy that they cannot block out entirely. The difference between them and the rest is a difference of content not of method. But you? You come from nowhere, you go wherever you will. Go now. I can no longer live with my fear. I wish you to depart, now that you have what you came for. You have your second answer, if not your first.’