The Stone Shaper
First moon record
I live alone on the island of the white stone. Not even animals can survive here. A few small trees grow at the edge of the surf and birds will on occasion cross the narrow sea to soar overhead and laugh down at me, but they do not land. A small cottage built by the first shaper protects me from the hot summer sun and the terrible spring storms that approach like mountain ranges over the horizon. Every shaper to occupy this island has lived in the cottage dating back to ancient times when the white stone was used for impossible things.
"With each generation, we are capable of less," the old man told me once. "No one knows this, but we are The Diminished."
I could not believe this as a child, watching the old man shape the white stone. There was no barrier at all between his mind and his hands. Shapes grew from his touch like flowers out of the earth. But now, an old man myself, I see that he was right. I could never build something as perfect as this cottage, where each stone fits flush against its neighbor without the need for mortar. I could only inherit it. Like this island, and the life I have here.
I keep a net for catching fish and a shovel for digging and scraping shelled animals out of the sea. I grow a starchy plant in my garden whose root makes a white paste as flavorless as stone dust. By these humble methods I eat enough for two shapers, though I hardly do the work of one.
The men come in their boats for my carvings at intervals I cannot predict. These men are from the villages, and if they come and my carvings are not ready, the men are not upset. They shrug, and return to the villages. My work is a mystery to them, and they are incurious. As for myself, I can think of little else besides the mysteries of this world. I ask you: Why do brilliant streaks of color float in the sky after a rainstorm, and what controls them? Where does the sun go when it sets, and where has it come from when it rises? Why does the water shrink and swell around the edges of my little island differently at different times of the month—is the sea alive? Is stone?
I am different from the men who come in boats; I feel this. In the villages they live in wooden huts. They hunt with wooden spears and power their long wooden boats by dragging wooden paddles through the sea. They pierce and stretch their skin and darken it in wild patterns with wooden tools. For all I can remember of the village, they might eat wood and make love to wood as well.
In the villages, their intimacy is with one another. My intimacy is with stone. Perhaps that is why we are different. They are shaped by men. I am shaped by wind, and stone, and silence.
When I was very young, a strange man came to my village to meet with the children there.
His beard was a waterfall of white, and his eyes did not move as eyes are meant to move. The old man's eyes could stay fixed on mine or on a difficult task forever and not grow restless. Not like the frantic, dull and wandering eyes of the people in my village. He had patient eyes.
I had never seen a man so old, and told him this.
"My mother says that when a man grows a gray hair, his death is not far behind."
"It is not always so," he said. "Death and time are cousins, not brothers. The sky ages without fear of death."
And the old man gathered all the children in a clearing and played games with us for three days and three nights. After each game, a few children were told to leave and go play elsewhere until only I was left. Then the old man drew crisscrossing lines in the sand to make floating shapes, and in these shapes he placed objects: A flower, a knife, a wooden idol, a shriveled starfish, and so on. Then he covered these objects and told me to recite where they had been. We played many games like this, the beach empty for miles around us. I lost all sense of time as the puzzles grew unending in their complexity. I became tired and lightheaded and thirsty and my vision grew blurry until finally the old man wore a pearl white smile and took my hand in his.
"Your youngest son is leaving," he told my parents, "and never coming home again."
They were not sad to see me go. By that age I was already considered their difficult child, the least favorite of seven. I was difficult because I never laughed at monkeys like the other children, and at night I would wander into the jungle to explore and collect jungle things.
As we left my village, the old man said I should call him Archimedes.
"What does it mean?" I asked him.
He told me that he did not know. "No one does," he said. "Like almost everything else, it has been forgotten."
And although he taught me to read, and to write, and to shape the white stone, I would never call him Archimedes. I called him old man, because it made him smile.
Someday, not long from now, I will have to leave my little island and travel to a village far away and play games with a child there who does not laugh at monkeys and who walks alone without fear into the jungle at night. But not yet. I say again: Another year more. For now, let me shape the white stone in peace.
Three moons after
The old man forbade me to write this, but he is long dead now and I am so different that I am different even from other shapers of the white stone, so I will write it:
If a man takes a hard black rock and pounds it into the white stone he can form a hole the size of a tree branch.......and if a man then takes a tree branch and slides it down into this hole like a snake into its burrow.......if a man does this in a long line across the face of the white stone.......and further, if a man then drips water down onto the tree branches so that they drink it and become engorged.......if a man does all this correctly—the stone will split!
It may be true that we are The Diminished, but these words give proof that we are still here, and still men.
Two moons more
I have found something hiding in the white stone. It is half the height of a man, deep black in color, and egglike in shape—smooth but of a material harder than my hardest tools. I wish I knew another shaper so I could ask him what it is, or if he has ever seen one. The old man said that there are other shapers on other islands in the sea, but they are so far away that I would need the men in boats to send them a message. And the men would get the message wrong and I would lose a whole season waiting. If I am patient, and perhaps clever, I will discover the nature of the thing on my own.
It has been many days and the black egg stone bakes in the noon sun until it grows hot enough to burn my hand. Today I have begun my trials, as the old man called these methods. For the first, I drip seawater over the surface of the egg until salt crystals form and grow like a coral on its surface. The egg remains unchanged. For the second, I heap upon sand, covering it and uncovering it to bring day and night for the egg under my control. This has no effect either. For the third, I strike it with a tool until my arms are weak and no reachable part is untouched by force. I attempt everything I can picture in my mind, but nothing alters it. This has all been done as the old man taught me. Attempt and observe, one trial at a time, with notes, but nothing comes of it. Now I will leave it alone, and see the result of this action.
My nights are now a misery. In my dreams the egg splits open wide and a great falcon is born from it that gathers me in its metal talons. I try to escape, but vast wings lift me and soon the island of the white stone shrinks below us until it is a tiny speck. I ask the being to take me above the sun or to the mountains on the moon, if mountains exist there. We rise higher and I am filled with joy. But then the air grows icy, and although I take in breath my lungs are empty. I try to scream but no sound will carry.
When I wake in my bed, a clanging at the quarry is ringing in my ears. When I go to check on it in the morning, all is the same. This repeats itself night after night.
If I could lift it, I would push this terrible orb off my island.
The thing from the stone held my face down in the sea today so that I could not take in breath, but still I would not answer its questions. The thing is very strong and built like a man but smaller, like a boy. I think of it as a boy, but I also fear it. It has taken up residence in the storage loft of my little cottage behind the space where I keep my tools. In the night I hear it breathing loudly and sometimes it cries out. The thing says it speaks all the languages of the world, including those from the distant past that it says men spoke long before my cottage was built. I ask it about the future, but the thing says it has not traveled there and cannot speak of it.
Moon half dark
Stone Child and I go days without speaking. He only sits and watches as I shape the white stone and yawns or pesters me with questions no man has the answers to. He will ask about the movements of the sun, or of the lesser points of light which appear as tiny torches in the night sky. He will ask what other men exist and the habits of their lives. He has a great interest in what can be built—the height of the largest houses and what tools have been devised by men to do their labor. The questions are without end and must be repeated many times before their meaning is clear enough for me to answer. Often I can only say, "This, no one knows."
But at other times Stone Child will sit throwing rocks out into the sea just to watch them splash, then stare intently at the horizon with desperate longing. Often he will wade out with determination into the low surf, only to rush back to the shore in a panic when his head begins to submerge. These strange antics and the fact that he came from a womb in the earth is why I call him Stone Child, and the thing does not object to this.
"What is your name?" Stone Child asks today.
"I have forgotten it," I tell him. "An old man living alone does not need a name."
"Yes, but you are no longer alone," Stone Child says.
"Then call me Moon," I say. "I have always loved the moon."
And that is what Stone Child calls me. Moon.
Sometimes after Stone Child has again refused to tell me where he comes from, I ask him why he stays here. He gives no reply and only searches the vast, empty waters around my island until a gloomy silence overtakes him that can last for days.
Stone Child has tried to close himself back up into the earth, but his womb is somehow used up, and he always emerges days later, despondent. How could Stone Child expect anything else? Can a newborn be placed back inside his mother when he finds that the world is frightening and without pattern or guidance? Stone Child says that the strange designs on his womb would mean nothing to me, even if my language had the words needed to explain them. I beg for this knowledge anyway. At these times Stone Child goes to the highest rock on my island to sit in abject misery, and I hear his high keening drift down to my ears until nightfall.
Half moon gone
Stone Child and I circle my island every sunset. We say little, but the silence between us grows like a living thing, tentative at first, but maturing into a third being that tells jokes to make us laugh or reminds us of our promises when we disagree. Stone Child is no longer afraid to touch me, nor I him, and some nights he will ride on my shoulders as we walk, or simply hold my hand.
I cook for him, but he knows more of this art than I do. I found him tearing leaves into our fish stew one evening and was prepared to object until I smelled its aroma. After three bowls I was in a stupor of contentment, and Stone Child did a thing I did not know he could do: he smiled.
I will ask Stone Child to be my apprentice, and if he accepts, I will show him all my knowledge of the white stone, which he is eager for. I will never have to leave my little island and go again into the loud confusion of the world in search of a child who does not laugh at monkeys or has patient eyes like the old man.
It is a simple matter: when the men in the boats come, Stone Child will hide so they do not see him. They will take the stones and go. Over the long years, I will slowly expose the men to Stone Child in glimpses and half-introductions until they do not question him. When I die he will inherit the cottage, my tools, and the island of the white stone. The world will allow this.
Full moon round
We are on the water now in a long thin boat, and I am unwell. When the men in boats came to collect the carvings of these past months, Stone Child was discovered. I had commanded him to stay in his loft, but as always, he disobeyed. I cannot explain it, but the men from the villages could not look upon him without intense horror and rage, and they tried to batter him with rocks and run him through with their spears. Without thinking I plunged one of my shaping tools into the neck of a man from the boat, and he died loudly. When the men rounded on me to avenge him, Stone Child killed the entire group with great power and precision using only his hands and tail.
In the skirmish a spear pierced my abdomen. Something deep inside me has opened and neither I nor Stone Child can close it. The thing's greatest desire now is that we reach a village so that I can be repaired. I fear the voyage is hopeless, but Stone Child says he can navigate without stars or maps. He says that he can feel in his body where people have clustered in the greatest number, and he will lead us there. If we survive the journey I will tell what becomes of us.
Stone Child and I are in a village with citizens beyond counting. My cottage would fit many times inside a modest structure in this place. I have dressed Stone Child in a dark robe with a deep cowl to hide the features of his face. To the curious I say he is my son, deformed, but loyal to the king and a devout member of his immortal church. We know nothing of this phrase, but we heard it said and so repeat it, and it satisfies all who inquire. The men here swim together like minnows in a tide pool.
We see the white stones in profusion, handled by all classes and passed among them in ratios I am still learning. Some are elaborately carved to look like plants or animals, others take the form of plain shapes with right angles and straight lines. They range in size, the smallest being no larger than a finger. The most massive are statues so large they must be ferried from place to place by wheeled carts. It occurs to me that I can only recognize the shapes taught to me by the old man, and that the work of other shapers is wholly unknown to me.
The skin around my wound has grown darker in color as the rest of my body has grown paler. We have been here two days, and I will not last a third. I have spells of dizziness, and at times I cannot recall where we are or why we have come to this place. The sound of excited speech and constant trade is ceaseless and prevents me from sleeping at night. Dust settles everywhere and the filth of a thousand bodies flows through the streets and clogs alleyways. All the pains I remember from my boyhood village are here increased beyond reckoning and frighten me, poisoning my mind as my body withers. We have found the healers in this place to be dangerous pretenders, their medicine expensive and useless.
Stone Child thinks he has discovered what the white stones are made for, but will not say more.
Stone Child has gained us entrance into the royal temple by cutting a stone wall with the hot tips of his fingers. This power frightens me, but as a lifelong cutter of stone, I admit envy. Inside the walls of the temple we walk about freely, our presence there unquestioned. In this place, location dictates all things to all people. The king is said to live in the highest room of the highest temple in a vast chamber where he hoards the white stones in unstable piles taller than a man. I laugh at the lunacy of this, but Stone Child nods in a troubled way, as though confirming a suspicion.
I pray I have enough time to write this: We found the blessing ceremony of the white stones. It occurs at a hidden place where the carvings are brought into the royal temple from the sea. A long line of people stand by, called to participate in the ceremony. Many are very old, or if younger, they are covered in rags. Some children, obviously crippled, also wait their turn. Here is what becomes of the work I do on my little island:
As a stone is placed on a pedestal, a man, woman, or child is placed on an adjacent pedestal and held there by guards. Words are then said that I do not understand. Stone Child says they translate as "all wealth is flesh." At this time the old man or beggar or child is killed by a swift blow from a piece of sharpened metal. The stone is then said to be ready for circulation in the community. This process is repeated dozens of times as we watch. I weep and cannot stop.
And then we are discovered, and Stone Child is revealed. Although I am near death already, I assume I will be killed.
But when the guards come Stone Child kills them without mercy until their huge numbers are exhausted. And then a terrible energy takes possession of Stone Child and begins to direct him. I can see in his gaze that he no longer recognizes me. I realize I must run, but the ground trembles and I fall. I feel enormous heat swell behind me and the world goes black. I hear wretched explosions booming in the distance like far off thunder. Then nothing for an eternity but darkness.
All moons lost
I am writing this from a hiding place in one of the few remaining buildings. I no longer breathe well, and although I lie here motionless, I sweat as if expending great effort. Stone Child has grown enormously. He stands far taller than a man now, and he brings fire wherever he goes. Nothing is spared, and I am afraid. Stone Child says this has all happened many times before, and that it will happen over and over again, forever.
Of his origins, he claims to know only this: "There is a number. A density at which human cruelty and madness become self-sustaining and life's original meaning is corrupted. Perhaps I am a check against this."
After thousands perish in the flames, Stone Child is small again, and at my side. I say I love him, and he says it back. I make him promise to save this record of my final moons, and to remember me. He says he will. I ask him to spare good in the world wherever he finds it, and he says he will try. Then I take his hand in fear, or pity, and welcome the darkness.
Holt Clark survives by working as a technical writer. You've probably thrown out his instructions before. In his free time he writes fiction. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org