This week’s story from Michelle Muenzler is a darker tale about resistance and survival in the face of immovable forces that feels fitting as the shortest day of the year nears. ~ Julian Yap, December 11, 2022.
What the Stones Want
By Michelle Muenzler
“The stones are talking again,” says Jude, my little sister.
I nearly choke on the last spoonful of mash that is my breakfast. “‘Again’?”
“Yeah.” She pauses, worry making her look older than her scant fourteen years. “They woke me up last night. Twice.”
I force myself to swallow—we can’t afford to waste any food, no matter how badly the thought of the stones talking turns my stomach. I was barely her age the night the stones commanded our parents killed, and the rabid looks on our neighbors’ faces haunt me still.
Blocking the stones’ voices from my head is the only good that came of that night. And little good it is since the stones can still speak well enough to everyone but me.
Jude stares at her bowl. Halfheartedly stirs the congealed mass. “Do we have to do as they say, Mirah? Can’t I just . . . ignore them? Just this once?”
It’s hard for her, I know. I’ve done my best to raise her and keep her safe, but my best never feels good enough. “Hmm, like the last time you decided to ignore them?”
She pales at the reminder. A few years ago she decided the stones didn’t deserve her favorite laying hen. She’d given that hen a name and everything, pampered it sunup to sundown, and hills be damned if those stones thought they were going to take that hen from her. And I let her defy them, fool that I was.
But the stones are persistent.
When her refusal became clear, they made a new demand. And when she decided that demand, too, was unacceptable, they made yet another.
They’re good at that, demanding things. Each new demand worse than the one before. Louder. More insistent. Until all you can hear is the sound of them ringing in your skull and you’ll do anything to shut that ringing out.
It was near half our meager flock laid open atop our hill that summer when Jude finally conceded. So wet and red, the ground was weeping sore with it for days, and poor Jude weeping with it. And then, after all the hard choices and the pain and the both of us thinking at last the stones had been made quiet again . . . after all of that, what did the stones demand from her a mere week later?
Her favorite hen. Again.
“I know I should obey,” Jude says, brow still furrowed with worry, “but what if what they want isn’t right?”
It pains me to push her so hard, but there’s little choice. Neither of us can afford to repeat our parents’ mistakes. “There is no wrong when it comes to the stones. There is only what the stones want.”
* * *
A few days later I’m surprised to see Djeb Corsa grunting and pulling a handcart up the rutted trail to our homestead. His arms are broad and brown, his shirt damp with sweat. There was a time I dreamed of the stones pairing us up. Of those brown arms tucked around me, his sweat mingling with mine. I even knew what I’d name our first child—a daughter, of course, because after Jude was born, I’d always wanted one of my own.
But those dreams died the same night as my parents.
“Mirah,” Djeb says, and settles his cart by the gate.
The still-raw memories scatter, and it takes me a moment to compose myself. “Djeb,” I finally say. “Gifts from your stones?” Inside the cart is half a smoked goat carcass and a wheel of his mother’s cheese.
He nods. Wipes a bit of sweat from his brow.
“The stones are generous.” I try not to choke on the words—generous would be if our hill’s stones allowed us to flourish like all the other families. Generous would be my parents, still alive. “Help yourself to some water. I’ll unload your gifts to the cold cellar.”
He nods again. Pauses as though about to say something, then stops himself and heads inside.
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