Stone Part Two

by socalledstories

The young man left, though he was still not clear what was meant. He went home for a while, but he felt the push without knowing what pulled him. He turned to travel as a relief from confusion. The further he walked, the more his thoughts returned to Hurrow and the stone which tells you what you want to know. More than anything he thought about how the woman used the stone. She lived by it. But it was not a deep life. Others thought her wise but the wisdom stopped short. She took their money, but what did she dispense in return? She gave them the answer they wanted. Maybe that is what you should do for money: give people what they want. But do they really know what they want – want what they want? The subtlety of the stone was that it did not necessarily give the answer that was wanted on a straightforward level. But the information imparted by the stone went hardly any distance further, for all its appearance of journeying beyond desire. Its fertility was an illusion. It told you merely the answer of your peers or your prophets, and that is an answer which tells you nothing that you do not already know – or could have known if you stopped to listen. You were turned around at the point where you should have made progress. And you paid for privilege of accepting the illusion.

It was the payment that made him angry, because it defined what the woman did and what her life had become. No prophet she. She was a pedlar merely, a pedlar in shallow profundities which left people floundering in their ignorance. The man began to imagine a different life for her to live and, knowing she had no inclination to it, he began to live it himself.

Without the weight of a stone to hold him, he wandered rather than settling as had the woman. In this way his reputation travelled rather quicker than hers, though with the disadvantage that it was difficult for people to find him when he was wanted. Without the shiny face of a stone to peer into, his consultations were longer and noisier that the woman’s had been. To see behind the shoulder of the person who was asking of him, he had to ask, in return, many questions – questions apparently off the point to their recipients. For he needed to know what the stone would have told him: that is, the moral culture from which they grew, and the strength of its hold on them.

The young man asked little by way of payment and suspected that few would have paid more. To survive he cleaned as before, or mended, or dug, or painted – wherever there was work he took it. Meanwhile, in the time that was left, he held his consultations and slowly built on the understanding that the stone had given him. From the singularity of his own nature sprang the ability to capture and then to value the significance of the answers he obtained. But the ability was laboured; it struggled still with the ignorance of his birthright. He had approached the woman untouched by the moral burden of the crowd. Because of his lack of it, he struggled to see its attachment to others. But struggle he did and he did see, while others were unable to focus on what they could not imagine any other way. It was as if they were asked to consider intellectually the need to draw breath: what was there to consider? The alternative was to be dead. But the young man knew the alternative so far as the stone’s answers were concerned, and he wanted others to know it too.

Others did not always share his enthusiasm. Although he asked so small a charge, there were many who demanded its return. The young man resisted since he had given answer to the best of his ability and since he was in rebellion against the practice of his former mistress of giving for money only the reply that would be accepted. Some claimed their return in violence rather than cash. This approach was more successful since the man was alone and unprotected. But gradually he had his compensation as he gathered a following of people who had understood something from the answer they were given that was greater than the answer itself.

In fact the young man seldom gave answer as such. Or perhaps it is better put that he seldom gave one answer. What he did was something like the reverse of his one time mistress. What he told the people who asked of him was the answer that was wanted, together with its alternatives – as many alternatives as he had the energy to imagine. What they learned, if they learned anything, was the identity of the influence that was most upon them; and, possibly, if they learned more, how to discard it. The people learned indeed what the keeper of the stone had concealed.

The consequences of the man’s work began to reveal themselves in the deeds of those who had learned from him. Notoriety, martyrdom, great patronage, art: these things sprang from his consultations. The man thought that his message was mild. It was that to decide a moral issue you must think and think and think, discarding that which you thought was instinct since in truth it was merely the thought of the others. He thought this message mild because it followed the course of his own life, which until this time had been mild enough in its bearing. But he was wrong in this, as the woman of Hurrow had been right. To lend another freedom of thought is to loose them from your view. Teach the method, but do not expect to recognise the results.

So strange and remarkable things began to happen across the region. People who had settled issues with violence, even death, lost all interest in them and in some cases were wounded themselves, having turned their backs. Emotional pillars wobbled and collapsed, becoming uncertain of the reward they had bestowed upon themselves, thinking that it was others who did so. Some who had lost their sanity regained it, since they no longer worried that no-one else made sense. Others, who had clung desperately to their sanity, let go because they no longer worried that no-one else made sense. The man was called to a rape trial since the accused claimed he had committed the offence after being convinced that society had no hold on his actions, that there was nothing that was wrong in itself. The man said that he never made comment on the authority of the law. That was a political issue. Although the court was displeased it accepted that, within the law, the man was not at fault – although the accused decidedly was. Meanwhile, in a neighbouring town, the man was fêted by the populace after he freed its mayor to make a painful decision against the interests of her colleagues.

So the man, growing older, gathered for himself a reputation or, rather, a number of reputations, in the localities. Gradually these local reputations stretched out to reach each other and his fame was established. Eventually a prince’s concubine came to consult with him. She was dressed plainly in the manner of a sage, as if this was required by the occasion. But she knew who she was and she did not hide herself from him.

‘Mine is a situation that is recognised but not applauded, that provokes awe but not respect. It is difficult for me to gain the counsel of others or to take it.’ It took her a long time to say what was bothering her. The man waited, not certain that anything would emerge from her wanderings. She talked about the importance of other people’s love, of the pettiness of politics. Then she spoke of the devotion of the prince and of how hard it was for her not to confide to others his pet names for her and romantic rituals that gave the lie, in their virginal sentiment, to the fierce cut of his public face. There followed a tour of royal mistresses. Remote as she was from the normal censure of women’s lives, she pulled together her colleagues by way of a profession, extolling their arts and their discretion. But her prince annoyed her. There is was: the first turn towards the issue itself. The man had noted the deliberate casualness of this slide in the monologue, accompanied by some stiffening around the neck and shoulders.

‘He goes beyond what he should expect of me,’ she exclaimed, but then reverted to displacement in correcting any assumption the man might have had that her reference was sexual. He had not grasped this assumption, despite momentary temptation to it. He sat back and waited for her to regain her direction.

‘He has always liked to tell me things. Some men like to think aloud and many like another set of ears to think into. He uses mine. He says that, more than anything else, he likes the way I listen to him. I’ve never been sure of this compliment. It seems to diminish my other skills. However, it is perhaps important: he’s kept me with him for longer than people expected. He values something which is not just face paint or athletics.’

The young man looked at her, seeing the crows’ feet behind the powder.

The concubine continued. ‘Often I was proud when I heard policies announced that first he had discussed with me. Sometimes he had taken my advice, though usually he dismissed it. But the listener is in a vulnerable position. The value of her service depends on the material to which she attends. You understand what I mean by value? I am talking in a wider sense now.’

‘I think I know what you mean by value.’

‘My prince is changing. He still confides in me, but what he says is different. I find it difficult to listen.’ She paused, taking long breaths, almost as if drawing the scent of the man who sat with her and sifting it. ‘For example: as his political opponents draw in, he talks of how to defend himself. He puts it that way, but his thoughts are all of violence towards them. I cannot commend his…plans; so I remain silent. But…’

There was a longer pause than usual and the man felt the instinctive pull to begin the intervention.

‘But silence speaks. And silence acts. The two divide you.’

The woman did not say yes, but her speech became quicker, freer and she told of her dilemma, of how the prince expected her complicity in kidnap and murder, how she felt her resistance to him grow and how he began to feel it too. But worse was her sense of betrayal towards her profession.

Then the man saw the faces over her shoulder and named them for her. More than the hurt or anger of her prince she feared the words of censure of her sister concubines. To break the code of trust which lined the pillow was more than they could tolerate, whatever the cost to others.

And so the man came to the attention of the powerful because he freed the concubine to denounce the murderous paramour. Lives were saved but not the prince, for he took sick in prison and died before he could seek reconciliation. Cut down from a self-tied noose, the former concubine retched herself back to life and filled her veins with hatred for the man whose advice she had sought in her desperation. Her campaign against him lit the land with rage, warming even the frosty grins of those among the prince’s rivals who, saved from assassination, now reaped again from the moral ground that grew against the man.

One prince, however, was clear hearted enough to give the man his due. He understood – as indeed did the concubine after many years of simmering – that the man had given no advice. He understood the power that was bestowed by this non-advice and so, for a while, he employed the man as his non-advisor. This dampened the man’s reputation somewhat when it had been about to go up in flames. Some felt his position compromised by patronage; but despite this his following grew. He set up an office at the palace until his protector objected. The prince objected to what he heard about the consultations. He had no notion to censor the man but he would rather not hear so easily what was going on. For this reason he asked that all consultations but his own be off the premises. Then their comfortable mutuality resumed for a while.

The prince was wise and used the counsel well. He was one of the few who understood the detachment required to benefit to the full. But the man began to wonder what his purpose was. After a few seasons he felt he had tutored the prince well enough. The prince was capable of re-figuring the questions for himself.

One day in the avenue that ran down from the palace the man passed the concubine, who was sitting shawled under a tree. Half-crushed petals lay pale on the skin of her arms and neck. Occasionally she twitched to lose them before others fell from above. But mostly she sat still, her face unmoved in its distance. She did not show whether she knew him or not and he did not pause but watched her from his own distance, shivering with each retreating twitch of her body. He passed on through the city seeing only blank faces. After a while of silence other pieces came into view: limbs and torsos bending to the mechanics of necessity. Why deprive them of their easy toil? Why give them heads? Why let them lose themselves in their freedom?

At the end of his city journey he locked the door of his office and left for the village of his birth. He was weary and confused. He spoke to no-one for a week, huddled dozing in the sun, moving only to follow its path. Eventually he took to his feet, seeking the company of cowherds and milkmaids, millers, weavers, shoemakers, anyone busy with purposeful labour. He saw people toiling in the pattern of their forebears, moving to their rhythm and to that of sun shaft and shower. People bemoaned both slack and abundance of their work; but in the evening they spoke through the produce of the brewer and never doubted her purpose or their own. Soothed by their company, he decided once more to seek answer of the stone.