Stone Part Three
The man made the journey to Hurrow on the back of a forester’s cart. Rolling gently with the logs he felt quiet and unpuzzled. His thoughts were barely worth the name, sitting among sensations like sleeping wolves under ancient trees. The smell of the wood seeped back through slow generations, fragrant with the histories of working folk. The man was no longer young and he welcomed the nowhere pace of the long and drowsy road, the chance to breath out through loosening muscles into the unseeing atmosphere. By the time he reached Hurrow he was without doubt that the stone would answer him.
The woman watched him coming over the brow of the hill and shielded her eyes from the sun the better to see him. Often she had thought of him, even when no recent news had come of his exploits. She smiled grimly and nodded to herself, acknowledging her foresight, and when the cart drew level with her door, she stepped forward and offered him her hand as he alighted. ‘Your return was longer than expected.’
‘I am not sure of what I have done,’ he said simply. ‘I want to ask the stone about it.’
‘Are you staying?’ asked the forester.
‘That depends,’ he man replied.
‘On what?’ asked the woman.
‘I don’t know. You shouldn’t wait for me.’
They went straight in to the stone, pausing only to absorb the memories that bounced at them from the cobwebbed walls. The woman took her seat and the man asked his question: ‘Should I resume my consultations, or leave people in peace? Should I let my gift fade with my name, or should I risk a famous death? Should I cease competing with you?
The woman looked up at the last phrasing as if she sensed her triumph in it. But the stone was not inclined to sudden recognition and followed its usual routine of sifting and stirring, taking its time to extract the virtues from the moral meat. The room grew dark around them and the temperature rose. They became confused about the time that had passed as if trapped in a magical cave that bore no reference to the outside world. The woman’s breathing became shallow and she began to sway gently from side to side like a flower seeking light. The man sat still with his head bowed in deep concentration, occasionally raising his eyes only to pick up the progress of the figures on the stone.
At last there was concession. The woman filled her lungs and broke through the man’s meditation. ‘The stone has some observations,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t expect you to take advice. If you care about this question then you have already begun to answer it. But your answer, whatever it is, will never satisfy you. You are not of this generation and you will not do good in it. Expect them to come for you soon. Make your choice then. It will be for future lives. It will make no difference to you.
‘Will you stay here?’
‘If they’re coming I may as well stay here as elsewhere. You, old woman, understand more about me than any other.’
‘But that is not much.’
The man laughed and took her hand, which he had never done in older days, since it had never been offered. The skin was dry but the palm yielded and she led him out into the half shadow to drink by the well. They both watched the sunset then and after a while she lit a pipe.
‘You might have been my apprentice if you had had patience.’
‘No. Patience is not given to me. And you would never have surrendered to one whom you feared.’
‘I find I fear you no longer. You have been out in the world but have done little of what I thought you capable. The doing has been all for others. That has been entertaining, but nothing to what might have been had you reached beyond your teaching.’
‘That is not my fancy, as you would have known if you have listened to me.’
‘What you hear from the mouth is not always what you see of the body. But you are different, as in all things. You could have done as your sponsors and disciples, but what they did you would have done tenfold: out-preached them, our-governed them, out-cheeked them, out-slaughtered them. But it’s all an exercise to you, it seems. You want to see the consequences of your philosophy played out for you by others. That has shown up the dark corners so you have scuttled back into the light.’
‘You were always hard on me, whether I was sweeping or whether I was pondering the mysteries. Your contempt for me has transformed rather than dissolved.’
‘I know you don’t care in any case, but let me warn you not to mind my way. For five and fifty years it has served as a barrier around me. Eventually someone will pass through. I cannot die until then and I have no desire to stand on ancient legs.’ She passed him the pipe and showed her teeth to the gathering gloom. The man puffed into the wind and watched the smoke as it ran itself into silence.
He stayed with her for the summer. The teeth appeared more often and the man grew less contemptuous of her craft. Her objections to his presence during the consultations declined and she became as interested in his interpretation of the stone as he had been in hers. He recognised that shortness of time worked on her almost as a recklessness. But the shortness was his, not hers. She allowed these steps towards priesthood because she knew that they would not be completed. Occasionally, when she bordered on pleasant in her manner towards him, he understood that she was offering consultation for what was about to happen to him, as if she craved some share of responsibility for it. At such times his eyes sought movement on the horizon. Finding none, they dropped from their discomfort to rest among the familiar shapes of shack and tree close by his slowing hand.
He did not disbelieve the stone, but he was curious as to why precisely they should come for him now? He had been consulted by so many. For whose infamy should he now be blamed? He had been excused responsibility for the rapist, while the concubine had sought no active penance for her tragedy. He could list other possibilities, but none in particular shouted its claim on him. Then again, should he assume merely from the mood of the message that the stone saw a hostile party? Perhaps the stone’s vision of him was unclear as, indeed, it had been impenetrable in the beginning. He had imagined guilty accusation. Perhaps a delegation of honour was in search of him. He found the thought strangely discomforting, preferring the single edge of his earlier apprehension. Still he had no mind to move. A limited period of suspense was stimulating, enlightening, liberating even. Made indefinite by flight, it would become his prison, binding him fast in an endless failure of resolution.
Having looked for them in the coming of night, he was surprised by their arrival in the morning. The sun was bright behind their faces as they beat on the door frame. They called out his name as if he were not standing right before them. He caught the colour of their cloth in the early light and was amazed at their origin. Taking nothing with him but the mixed blessing of his patroness, he turned and marched with the posse back home.
For six days he was held in the gaol without sign of interest in his presence. Watching thought the barred window he saw the cross roads of his village in the distance and remembered, in the long past of three moons, his still seat in the sun and his awakening to the living spirit of the countryside. The interlude was sweet and its scent filled the time of his waiting. At last the fire-jackets came to get him, bouncing him carelessly between them as the progressed through the deep stone maze towards his judgment.
In the hall of the castle was assembled a large audience in feast day garb, faces scrubbed to reflect the gaudiness of the cloth, dazzling him with their unity as they turned to face the man and his escort of flames. Up ahead was a single figure sitting on the steps beneath the judging stone. ‘We call you to account for the death of your mother,’ said the magistrate of Ithandwee; and the man was flung into the pit at her feet.
The man absorbed the shock and summoned his mother to him in the half-light. Are you dead? Is it true? he asked the nodding shadow. His arms grabbed at her, refusing her leave from the world. His heart beat like a baby’s, dependant on a mother as much a part of him as the rest of creation. How could he lose this large slice of his body without bleeding to death? Indeed, blood had begun to fill the pit, pouring from his side like some scarlet mockery of belief. The shadow moved back from the flood and grinned its eyeless mirth at him as it faded into the wall of the pit. The red flood retreated and the man was left scratching for the substance of someone who had always been void.
Where are you? he cried.
You will see soon enough! said she.
So he faced her for the first time in many seasons, having parted from her in bitterness. She returned a gaze without eyes, and he felt the power of his loyalty to this woman, whom he had learned to condemn. He knew well the way she sucked the life from those in her sway, how her expectation of obedience erased all other influence. When his eyes grew old enough to open to her, his feet backed him slowly to the door, and there his love for her departed, never again to be attached to its object, but drifting sadly with him across the soft surface of the earth.
As the floor of the pit dried around him, the man sat and hugged his red-streaked knees, trying to understand the enormity of his mother’s death, lacking any interest in his greater peril. Each time her name was sounded, its echoes speared his ears and he clutched at them, trying to defend himself. Slowly some sense reached him of the reason for his presence in the pit.
‘Your mother accuses you of betrayal,’ a voice was intoning. ‘She nurtured your body but you brought about her death. Her executors bring this action against you.’
Later, another voice: ‘It is of no surprise to us that you, who have taught the abandonment of morality, should face us now from the pit.’
They expected him to speak, and his mouth was beginning to feel words within it. ‘She accuses me of abandoning her to poverty and starvation by speaking in my father’s favour. I didn’t want to speak. I prefer to listen. But it was demanded of me and I decided to tell what I knew rather than what would have saved her.’
‘And what use was that to your father, who was already dead?’
‘None whatsoever. What use is this action now that she is also? I did not know that she was dead until now, and I regret it.
The audience became still as if approaching the point of greatest anticipation.
The silence in that great hall held the roof as if the pillars were about the crumble, and the magistrate on the steps beneath the judging stone took breath so deep that it might have been her last.
‘Do you agree that you spoke against your mother when she claimed support from your father’s estate?’
‘Yes, I did that. I know what it is expected in these situations: that silence should prevail. I know that sons support their mothers whatever else pertains. Those are the customs of our community. But there is nothing written on the fabric of the world that forces us to keep to to them. My father reordered his affairs when he was dying. He did not want my mother to benefit from his death because she had hastened it. He wanted his possessions to go to the college he founded in his youth. But she went to law claiming that he had lost his reason. I spoke against her because she lied and because I believed the money better spent on the college.’
‘Your testimony is very cold. This is not what we were led to expect. You have raised violence and passion across the continent, yet now you weigh like a desiccated book-keeper the fate of yourself and your own.’
‘I raised nothing that was not already high, merely allowed it to drift on unfamiliar currents.’
The man understood that the assembly would judge him on moral grounds, which they were unable to distinguish from the rolling landscape of their hard-pressed lives. Truth was of little importance to them and they would not value his decision in its favour. He himself had no idea whether he had made the best choice. How could such a thing be known? He knew only that his choice had been free: free from those who now enclosed him, free from the mother whose attempts to secure him had sent him perversely into orbit. What could he do now but follow that spin out into the comfort-less void?