Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Talking to Stones

by Joel Doonan


I remember the way they looked in the evening, the fiery brilliance as they reflected the colors of cloud and sky.

I remember the way we used to watch the fading colors together after each sunset, our arms and hands touching, even when greasy and dark from our work of cleaning the machinery; how the glass towers rose skyward so high they disappeared into the mist of heaven, and how they sparkled vibrant blue in the dark night as we worked till dawn. In the morning we watched the colors grow fiery all over again, before we retired to our quarters to sleep. But since you left, I feel only an empty hollow where a heart used to beat, and all the colors have disappeared, drained from me just as it did from the glass spires and towers of the Empire. Now all is dull and gray and shattered, like the faces of dead men, and of those standing around me now.

It was a young boy, Tad, who lost his glasses and -- being clumsy by nature -- did by accident what none of us could bring ourselves to do by intent.

He had just made friends with the dust, having tripped over the black cable that snaked through the sand around the edge of City Twenty Three. The lenses of his eyewear were still in their frames, dusty and scratched as he slipped them in place and stood up -- on the other side of the control cable! The black snake, this rumored death line which cast up an invisible barrier which none of us had ever dared to cross. We watched in astonishment, a silent band of refugees from a dying city staring at a dusty boy. It was his older brother Jarvis who followed Tad across and proved that the magic of the cable was indeed lost.

Few of us had even been outside the city walls -- only the maintenance crews -- and ahead lay a barren expanse of rocky dunes and wiry scrub. Each of us in turn crossed the cable in exactly the same place where Tad had fallen, just to be certain that no trickery of the wires still held life in other areas.

From here on the high ground we surveyed the lay of terrain. It was a country littered with the derelict machines of the Dark World; iron riveted beasts of metal whose purpose and origins lay in mystery to us. What we knew for certain is that they began the demise of normality, and unexpectedly granted us new freedoms, and new fears as well. We had all survived a decade of chaos and every one of us had lost a close friend.

The Empire had dominated the continent for nearly two hundred years, engulfing city after city, but now for the first time the Empire's capitol, City Twenty-Three, imparted an uncomfortable stillness. Its immense glass towers stood so silent you could hear the wind as it hummed and whirred around them like a gale through a stone canyon, towers dark and lifeless even as they still rose with majesty to the clouds.

We were the "created ones", tradespeople and craft workers trained in specific duties who lived and worked in the lower levels and whose labors enabled the city's utilities. The "creators" were mostly a mystery, dwelling in the high towers, individuals who were seldom seen beyond their iridescent wing-craft shining like jewels against the steel blue sky as they went about their lives.

We did not know why all the creators had vanished in the past weeks. Some say they were drawn by force into the Dark World. Others believe they were devoured by their own arrogance and annihilated each other.

One by one the city's power systems failed for lack of fuel and the machinery of the utilities no longer functioned. Food ran low and for days we sat idle with no tasks to perform. Our sleeping quarters were stifling hot and drinking water nearly gone. Now our destinies were uncertain, created by the consequences of our own actions, and all we knew to do was to leave.

We crossed the death line and fanned out across the wasteland with no goal or destination, like animals newly freed from cages, without plan or purpose, but with a feeling of common destiny. Our paths gradually joined and one by one we formed a single unbroken line following the sun westward.

Evening winds came. It scoured the dunes and brought dust to our eyes and ears but we held the line steady. We plodded mostly in silence toward the low sun, the sky vibrant orange as we wove a path through a land of fallen metal beasts.

"The machine is pissing," said Tad as we passed a rusted derelict. He kicked the loose sand in front of Jarvis, his brother, who was walking just ahead of me.

The riveted iron beast was tipped to one side with a broken axle, and green fluid trickled from a low corner. The machine fluid glowed in the shadows beneath and left an eerie bright puddle in the sand.

"We dare not touch the blood of machines," I said, having some experience in the matter. I had been trained in machine maintenance. Jarvis nodded as if to agree, but the curious look in his eyes said otherwise. He and his brother Tad only knew ductwork and vents. We continued on into the twilight through the sand and rocks and thorny scrub, accompanied by the constant rattle of Jarvis's tool belt.

The stones began to talk to each other in quiet snaps and creaks. It was the sound rock cooling down from thermal expansion, but I wondered if it was also a language known only to them. I listened carefully, curiously, as we made a camp for the night.

Jarvis produced a can of beans from his overcoat. With some effort he chiseled open the lid with a screwdriver while I crafted a small fire from sticks of turpentine scrub. The little resinous sticks burned bright and long, and Tad gathered leaf herbs from the dune scrub, sampling each type of bush till it was too dark to forage. I had filled my pockets with crackers before leaving the city and together we made little snack bites; crackers, beans, and a green herb leaf to add a brightness to our taste. We sat around the fire in silence as Jarvis gleaned the bean can clean with his fingers and tongue, working gingerly around sharp edges. We could see the glow of other small fires from the dunes around us, and hear the quiet sounds of the others making meals out of whatever they could find.

Without our work there was little to talk about, our toil was all we had known, and silence pervaded the other camps as well. Mostly we just sat and dreamed, staring into the glow of our fires. With the monotony and labor of our lives it was what we were best at. Dreams within dreams.

####

I remember the time you and I were on the shores of our beginning. Where we first started. How we gave witness to the very first dawn and how we stood colored by the lights early glow even as the sky above was dark and jeweled with handfuls of stars. Wind blew our hair into our eyes and mouths. It was strange the way it tickled, the way it annoyed even as we ran, undressed, and marked the damp sand with our footprints. Even though we were thin and our stomachs rumbled for lack of food; and even with the wind and hair in our eyes, we loved it so much that we laughed. Your laughter set gulls flying from the cliffs beside us and the sound of it still echoes in my heart. You danced in the sand. You danced color and music into into the sky, into my existence. My dream. My Ariana.

####

I once shared my memory with Jarvis, who told me that the shoreline of our beginnings exists only in the realm of the mind, a dream given to sustain us through our labors; but for Ariana and I, it was very real. We felt the sand, the wind, the sun. We touched it all.

####

The afternoon sandstorm had calmed by nightfall and with a gentle breeze the movement of firelight and shadows on a distant rusted machine seemed to set it dancing, granting it a strange sort of new life. I found a cozy place that resembled a small nest in the sand surrounded by a tight ring of scrub and I lay down away from Tad and Jarvis with only an overshirt to separate the dust from my face. I fell inward from consciousness, toward the center of all things where my heart resides. The faint conversations of talking stones set me to dreaming, like distant music in an unknown language.

I found myself on the shore, my feet bare. It was twilight and there you stood, silhouetted by gold and orange, your sun bleached hair blowing like dune grass. "Take my hand, angel," I said, "and walk with me down the unbroken line at the water's edge. We will be the spirits of sun and shadows who dance color into the wind. We will run together so far and so fast that even the stars will work to chase after us".

Ariana became bright like a jewel and then I became bright as well and the nagging pain in my side vanished, and we could feel the presence of a place called Eden; a place of peace. Then in just a moment all that I knew disappeared as sleep pulled me from dream awareness into the darkness of lonely emptiness; of nothingness.

Sunlight greeted my eyes as I sat up, sparked by a sharp pain in my side from a stick protruding through my undershirt. Tad was squatting close by, staring at me through his dusty lenses. He chewed on the woody stalk of an herb plant, gnawing off the rough gray outer bark to expose a bright green inner layer. He handed me a stick to chew and I took it.

Jarvis had risen early. Ignoring my warnings, he had gone back and collected the green coolant from the leaking machine into the empty bean can. He had fashioned a lid from repair tape and tied his shoelaces around the rim of the can so that he could hang it from his waist belt. His heavy work boots now sat open and loose.

Jarvis had a toothy grin; teeth that seemed oversized for such small jaws even with three cuspids missing. "The green piss may hold magic." He held up the can and sloshed it gently. "Might drive away the darkness in the soul, the shadows which take us in our sleep, the place we fear."

Tad and I nodded, we shared the same concerns. A sudden clamor rose from over the dune and all three of us quickly ran up the sandy bank.

A meeting had convened: a time and place, it turned out, for each to voice their thoughts. Marcus the elder stood at the center of a natural arena and we seated ourselves in the sand around the rim. Marcus, the utility maintenance chief, had gained everyone's respect.

"Each will speak in turn. Each will give a plan, or agree to another's plan. We will decide as a group what to do, even if our decision is to disband and each go their own way."

Another elder, Marta, rose and stood beside him. "We should seek the place called Eden", she said. "The place of peace. A place without fear."

Others stood up in turn and agreed with her.

"I have seen the glow of Eden's light," I said, "Just last night." I pointed west. "We should follow the path of the sun."

"We can watch for signs," added Jarvis. "Watch the way the birds fly. Watch the way the clouds rise and roll. They will be our guides."

"And listen to rocks," added Tad, joking in my direction. I looked away. Not one of them understood the language of stones, and few gave credence to Tad's comments as they were often taken as nonsense.

Each individual in turn had the opportunity to voice their thoughts and share their dreams. We had always worked in unison and now were all in agreement.

"It is decided," said Marcus. "We will walk to Eden. We will maintain the line."

With a new sense of purpose we divided and shared the little food we had. We began our trek at once, to the place of peace, an oasis of the soul.

By noon we were well past the litter of derelict machines and now only an occasional silver orb lay in the sand, orange-sized and mirror polished, dangerous pathways to the dark world. Jarvis had taken to carrying a stick as he walked. He waved it over an orb as we passed. "Gatekeepers of darkness," he said as he stepped carefully around, "let us pass unharmed." Tad crouched low and reached out to touch it but Jarvis stopped his hand with the stick and motioned for him to keep moving.

The day dragged on. Jarvis, Tadd and I gradually fell behind and walked the end of the line in the dust of others, each lost in our own private dreams. By midday, hunger, thirst and heat left us dizzy. Jarvis talked to himself in a constant mutter while Tad chewed incessantly on turpentine bark. I harbored a quiet fear, secretly doubted the existence of Eden even though I professed it to the others, and feared that we would find only more desert to the west.

Late afternoon brought language back to the stones and now for the first time I began to understand a word here and there. I listened carefully to the faint murmurs, my head tilted left then right as we plodded.

"The rocks again?" asked Jarvis. He held the bean can up to his ear. "It's alright with me". He said as he gently shook the can and listened to the slosh of machine fluid.

Three figures lay in the dust beside the trail of footprints.

"Three have fallen," said Jarvis. He used his stick and poked each figure for signs of life, then he opened a small hole though the tape lid of his bean can and shook a few drops on each of them.

"May you find your way to Eden," he said, waving his stick, "Our blessings follow and protect you."

We continued, dizzy and faint. My joints ached and my stomach hurt; it was an empty pit. I labored with each step then finally had to sit. I lost sight of Tad and Jarvis as they continued without me, plodding slowly but determinedly over a rise. The sun was low and the stones were talking in a lively chatter. I just sat in the dust and listened.

I could just barely distinguish phrases as the stones talked. They talked to each other, about the day's events, about who was larger or lighter, about the strangers passing through their land; then they began to speak directly to me. "The creators said that you and your kind were without souls." I listened closely. The words of the stones were wispy, like a dozen quiet whispers at the same time, windblown, distant and faint. "This is the deep fear of darkness which you and your kind harbor." Tears came to my eyes as I listened.

"The creators lied to you and your friends. It was they who lost their souls; lost them to the wind in the tall towers; lost them to jealousy and pride. They did not know it, but they gave their souls to you and your kind. Now darkness awaits them, and Eden awaits you."

The sun was setting and I lay in the sand, eyes open to the sky.

"Your Ariana has come," came the soft pops, creaks and snaps of the speaking rocks.

Then suddenly I saw her, wrapped in transparent garments of colors, blue and gold, flowing with the wind. She possessed a beauty and radiance I had never seen and I could see her lips move to speak, but I heard no words.

"She says that Eden is a place of the wind spirits," explained the stones, " She has come to lead you and the others."

"How do I follow her?" I asked the stones, "what should I do?"

Ariana drew very close. She leaned over and whispered in my ear and I suddenly heard her words, clear and bright.

"Just will yourself up," she said. "Join me as an angel of the wind and together we will lead the others to Eden."

I felt myself become lighter and I looked at my arms, which were becoming translucent blue. My hunger vanished and with a new clarity I stood up. Colors began to surround me as well, and garments of rose and green covered me. I took Ariana's hand.

I could see the wind spirits of others, from the fallen. I watched them rise leaving nothing behind but soft depressions in the fine sand. Jarvis and Tad were visible over the rise; Jarvis on his knees and his brother Tad flat on the ground; but they were not dead, they were turning into colors as I did.

Ariana called out, "Join us, the created of Empire City Twenty Three. We will go together to the place called Eden."

The wind spirits of the created came toward us. Ariana pointed west and suddenly all of us could see a brightness on the horizon that we couldn't see before, where stars spread colors through an inky sky and pathways of gold light beckoned. I held her hand as we rose. We let the wind guide us. Others followed, and together we traveled toward the place called Eden.

THE END


© 2005, 2007 Joel Doonan

Bio: Joel Doonan grew up in the rain forest of eastern Peru, where he had many unusual experiences, both dangerous and wonderful. Somewhere between the heat, the bugs, the rain, the natives and traveling adventurers, he developed, at an early age, an avid interest in writing. Now Mr. Doonan operates a small business in central Texas and lives on 22 acres of untamed rural land; and somewhere between the heat, the grasshoppers, the hail storms and the natives, he still finds time to write. Two of Mr. Doonan's stories have been published by Wild Child Publishing; his story The Wanderers appeared in the June 2004 edition of Aphelion, and his story The Yellow Leaf appeared in the September 2005 issue.

E-mail: Joel Doonan

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