Stone Part Four

by socalledstories

The trial continued over several days. Between sessions the fire-jackets took him off to his cell and left him there to contemplate. They allowed the old woman to visit him.

‘I understand a little more of you,’ she said, balancing on the bench edge and tapping her feet on the stone floor to the rhythm of her delight. Your mother loved you like a fire which burned away your sense of being among others. When she finally realised what she had done she sought to cage the monster she created – with her bones, if only they remained.’

‘She wants to choke me with them – choke me so that I struggle for my breath and for the words that come with it. The festival will cheer its own ignorance when my sentence is pronounced.’

‘You expect too much of them. You want them to abandon what they cannot see beyond. You expect them to take seriously what, for them, is the best show of the year. On the other hand, you over-estimate their cohesion. Your supporters are among them, waiting for a turn in the tide. I have heard that a person of importance is preparing to speak in your defence. That is a sign that the storm has blown beyond the island of your mother’s rage. Wait and see what happens in the morning. You may yet regain your freedom.’

The man sat on in her absence and juggled with the words she had left with him in his cell. The echoes dulled with the night and he lay his head on his bag of straw and dreamed of meadow grass and summer rain.

In the morning he made his usual journey to the pit, negotiating the rough-mortared corners of the prison maze and emerging, grazed and bewildered, into the dense hush of the assembly. Pulling himself to standing he was confused to see smiles among the expressions which surrounded him. These were smiles of sobriety rather than enjoyment of his pain. He wondered what had sharpened them from the blur of before. Then he found the face that explained, the one that had stirred the stagnation. He saw the prince who had been his patron in the city.

Draped in plain blue, like a rapid river running from a deep pool, the prince descended the aisle steps and took his place as witness. He gave his observations of his former servant’s work. He showed his understanding of it. He acknowledged his order for the consultations with other persons to be removed from his palace, but he had a confession to make in this respect. ‘In this way I was cowardly, I fear. I did not wish association with events that might follow. But I say two things about this. Firstly, such events were not of this man’s doing. And second: why should we hide from what is released by new thinking?’

There was animation in the audience at this. Hostility was posed against accord with a balance that surprised the man in the pit. Then a hostile spoke: ‘Why call this new thinking rather than false thinking? Our thinking is part of our breathing, our loving, our dying, our whole way of life. Outside it lies shame and disaster. What you call new is a demon – it is anti-life.’

‘There is no shame and disaster with our life?’ asked the prince.

‘Is this pertinent?’ asked the magistrate.

‘I am a witness to this man’s honour. His honour bears on his behaviour towards his mother. His honour is in question because it does not conform to our history. But what is that history? Is it a matter of unblemished health and universal accord? Is it too holy for examination?’

The man felt for the first time that the court might be swayed in his favour, and he wondered what legacy the debate might leave him were he to be freed. What responsibility would be left to him for the rest of his life? Must he lead a crusade against the old ways? Was this what he had intended when he took up against the work of the woman and the stone? Was he to be a great mover of the world, something which was quite alien to his nature? He shivered and pulled his arms around his knees, rocking slowly on the pit’s bottom to the thump and rattle of the argument above.

‘There is another reference beside what has served us in the past. Perhaps others still. But this one is the one that teases us at present. It teases us because it is just around the corner, just beyond out vision. And also because, if we turn the corner, we find a creature with a face on each side of its head. What this man invites us to see is that repetition and restatement do not of themselves make the subject right. But if you let go of your hold on the practice of your society, then the alternatives multiply to the horizon, just when you thought you might gain access to the true ground. We don’t like such freedom, but should we blame a man for choosing it for himself and for offering it where it was sought?’

‘These are words of the wind! I know that this man condemned his mother to a short survival of old potatoes and leaking roofs. This is pain to which we must cling while we are buffeted by oral flatulence.’

The man in the pit could feel the confusion in the hall. A struggle was beginning like his own struggle of many years ago, when he had tried to understand how other people thought. He had wondered then how they could put such faith in arguments which grew chiefly from custom and self-interest, in the face of whatever might be urged to the contrary by another constituency. Such assumptions now fought in their minds with the idea that there might be a greater truth to seek, insubordinate to known ways; but which ultimately they would not find, since an ideal is a pool of blue which becomes sand as the tongue touches.

Should I care? the man asked himself. Should I care what happens to me? Should I care who wins this game of right and good, this shuffle of counters to the edge of the board? Once I cared about the money she earned through re-pedalling of birth-rights. I wanted others to see the sleight of hand. But what trick do I play on them in return, making them think they can know better in another way? I won’t be the last to wake these phantoms, though they slumber in-between. My part in this is done. I await the verdict without hope.

On the last day the old woman came early in the morning to visit him. She did not smile since she saw the look in his face that he took no trouble to remove for her.

‘You are worried about the decision.’

‘No. I am not worried because I dread the outcome whichever it shall be. I did not want this bloodless battle. I don’t want to be judged on its terms.’

‘But you do. It is what you have wanted since you left the stone in anger. Since before then, since you heard its name. Before then: since your mother beat her world into you and then beat it out again. You want to denounce it as the prince admits that he once did. But you have a following that will lift you from the pit. Don’t tell me that you don’t look for them because I have seen you searching over the edge.’

‘But they are not my verdict of themselves. I cannot agree with them because they want me to. Otherwise, what is this court?’

‘What indeed? I do not know any longer. I do not know how it will manage this new spirit, these questions to itself. Though your verdict does come before all others, it is not the last word, as you yourself have shown. Once defy the stone and you may never again ask its comfort.’

This is what he now faced: the verdict. The weight of the decision was on him and he struggled to carry it along the dank corridors and around the jagged bends. The right to speak of all others was now suspended and the man himself must take breath and pronounce in the language of his kindred his judgment of what he had done.

‘I deny that I am at fault. I am uncomfortable with so direct a statement but this is not the time for equivocation. My father was dead and my mother was responsible. People asked me from their mouths to give explanation of his death. But with their eyes they forbade me to injure my mother by telling the truth of her harassment of him. In this part of the world it is considered worse than murder to turn against the body that gave you birth. So strong is this belly-thought that it is not chosen as an ideal but felt as fibre woven into the firmament. Because of this you cannot see – though some of you begin to – that my immoral decision was nothing of the sort. It was moral, truly moral, because I struggled for it in the void. I asked the stone of Hurrow, but it would not answer me. It knew that there was not in me the suppleness of the dancer, the ear for rhythm, the eye for the step, that would allow me to fall in with others. Those others with their groupings and departings, their interlocking hoops, their arguments of the ancients – they called to me but with mouths full of blood and I rejected them. You cannot think with blood. It squirts stripes across clear waters and nothing true remains. The same bars have crossed my path since the last moon shone.

‘I cannot say I was not angry. My mother always meant to do me harm, though she seldom recognised it. I do not know why you became her agents. I forgive you for feeling so threatened by one humble counsellor and his poor voice. But now, at the end, I see the damage I have done – perhaps only to myself, who knows? And I am asked to judge myself on this point. I have lain awake on a straw mattress and considered my answer. I see now that I am guilty, and I await my fate.’

He turned toward the judging stone, but noise came not from it but from those in the audience who had gathered around him. ‘We will not let this happen!’ they shouted, striding to the edge of the pit and raising their arms in a wall of protest.

The hall considered, silent between the calls of the profane. A loud crack from the base of the stone percussed about the vaulted roof. Then others, gathering into a storm. The stone began to move, sliding forwards onto the shallow steps. One, two, three, four, down it went towards the pit, shuddering deeply from the touch of those that pushed. There at the edge of the pit it stood poised before it fell, questioning its direction but too late to turn about. The man bowed before its judgment, then raised his face as the hands caught it. The strain broke arms and yet they held, enough of them to keep him from his doom. When he saw the pain in their faces the man climbed from the pit and the great weight was dropped in his place.

In that moment the hall became a sculpture. Drafts, like careless children, dared to touch the chiselled limbs, but there was no response to their bored naughtiness. The company had left the liquid space where it began and stiffened into history. The shock was almost too much for them, threatening to leave the real individuals in a state of permanent artification. But eventually people moved, some standing, some collapsing further into their seats and the magistrate fumbled in her big books until she was able to declare that a prisoner is reprieved if the stone should fail to strike. She did not care to ponder whether audience participation was an admissible agent in the failure.

The man went back to Hurrow with the old woman, as her apprentice. In years to come he sat with the stone which she had left to him and practised her art in extended form. He knew now how to modify his advice and less drama followed his consultations. But into the future, disciples of his old self washed through the crusty earth of known ways. In his name they worshipped the havoc thus created.