Gizmodo is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “A Tableau of Things That Are” by Adam-Troy Castro. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on our website. Enjoy!
A Tableau of Things That Are
When they ordered me down off my pedestal, I had nowhere else to go.
Life as a statue is easy. They make you ascend the pedestal, turn you to stone, remove your ability to move, and leave you to watch the turn of the seasons in a world you cannot touch or care about, anymore. You can only stand in the public garden where all the convicted are placed, and you watch with dull and distant interest at the visitors who stroll past, living the lives of the quick, sometimes interested in all the immobile condemned, and sometimes not.
It is not fun, but it is not torture either, the way it would be if you were left the capacity to care. Fun is just a word that no longer applies, and the years are just time, crawling by like a snail on a pane of glass. It is easy because it requires no effort and takes nothing from you but your humanity.
Returning to the world, once you have served your sentence, is more difficult.
The custodians of the gardens don’t give you any money and they don’t offer you a job; they just say, “leave,” and if you’re smart, you start walking. You must, because otherwise they’ll petrify you again and put you on another pedestal, frozen in whatever position they have chosen for you. This time you will remain there forever, and many have, because their dulled wits did not provide the impetus for the first step toward whatever destination a released stone man can choose.
I would not have been upset by permanent immobility. I was made of stone and did not care about anything. But after some delay to urge my thoughts back into constructive motion, I remembered that I’d once had a home; the place where I’d been when they’d come for me, where I’d lived as a short-tempered idiot and a married man, where I’d broken a man’s back in a barroom fight, and earned my ten years on display as a statue.
I put one foot in front of the other, and then did it again, and after that did it again, a process that once begun, took care of itself. I did not even have to think of it. My legs, given the order to walk, obeyed, and left me alone with my thoughts, which were not many. What thoughts I had only accumulated like drifting sediment, and most of them were of a woman’s name.
I made my way out of the park and from there out of the city and from there into the countryside, trudging past villages that did not make much fuss about me as long as I did not tarry or interfere with the lives of those still made of flesh. I sometimes saw people at their fences, watching me as I passed, their hands folded against their chests in silent judgment. I left them behind only to face a new set of pitiless eyes, bearing the same warning, at the next curve of the road, or the one after that.
Soon those populated places thinned out. I entered the places where I was most of the time the only being visible. The land became less dominated by farms and more dominated by woods and empty fields. I marched through torrential rain and the road became a soft strip of mud, where my stone shoes sank to ankle-depth, turning every step into an exercise in first freeing a foot from imprisonment. It got cold. Now the people I encountered wore heavy coats, and exhaled little clouds of vapour. Some coughed from chests clogged from winter illnesses, and they looked miserable, a state of being I vaguely envied, even though I was stone all the way through and had no lungs to clog. What cold I felt, the part that would always be part of me now that I was no longer flesh, was the chill that goes with being stone. But I remembered being a man and registered the winter through the way it looked, if not the way it felt against a body that was no longer flesh; the grayness of it, the sense winter tends to have that the world will never be warm again. It looked like I was peering inward at the thing I had become.
The entire journey had only two significant social interactions, before I reached the distant parish where I lived.
One was with a band of hooting boys, throwing rocks and snowballs, calling me a big dumb stupid rock and demanding to know what crime I had committed, that kind of thing. I said nothing, in part because it would have done no good and in part because I was still so unused to speech that my attempts sounded like an anvil being dragged across a slate. My most heartfelt reaction, the urge to seize one of the little bastards by the head and then make a fist, mashing every cruel impulse into a red paste, flashed in me, but took so much time to form that it outlasted my will. I just walked until they tired of me.
The other interaction I had was more significant. The cold snap had gone away, and I found another stone man lying on his back in an unkempt patch of yellow grass. He must have been there for some time, because he was half-buried by a recent snowfall which had turned to slush and filthy water in the hollows that form on the body of a supine man. I altered my course long enough to approach him, and stared down at the eyes that gazed unblinking at the grey sky. Like all stone men, he had the features of the being he’d been until convicted of whatever crime had sentenced him to petrification, and in all respects but the motionless cast to his face and the ageless pinpoints in his eyes he seemed to be the commemoration of a fresh-faced young man, untouched by the evils of the world.
I asked him if he was all right.
“I am stone,” he said.
It had been a stupid question.
I asked him if he needed any help getting up.
“I will not be getting up,” he replied.
I asked him if there was anyone who he wanted informed of his whereabouts.
“I think not,” he said. “It has been many years. Everybody I loved must be dead. Why did they make you a statue?”
“I killed a man.”
He was downright chatty for a stone man.
“I killed two women. I was the kind of man who enjoyed doing things like that. When they petrified me, I stood in the garden for forty years, and my enjoyment of anything is gone.”
I told him I was on my way to see the wife I had left behind.
He said, “Why?”
During none of this did he move as much as a twitch, and I thought about how little his existence had changed, since his days on public display. Maybe my existence would change more, when I found Ariella.
I abandoned him, and though it has been many years, I have no doubt that he is there still.
I continued my journey. I did not need to stop. I did not need to rest. I did not need food or water and I did not feel the strain of the long journey in my legs. I did not get tired. There were times when if I paid no attention to the testimony of my eyes, I could almost forget that I was not still on that pedestal, watching the years go by from inside a cage of immobility. There were other times when I considered not going home at all, but almost without realising it I left the road and took a narrower path into the hills, into the forest of bare trees where I at long last found the old, rickety two-story home with the wraparound porch. It still stood, though it showed the passage of years, and it badly-needed a coat of paint. But there were clothes flapping on the line, and the sound of a singing woman drifted from the open window.
I almost climbed the porch stairs to knock on the front door, but before I could the front door opened and Ariella came out, dressed for housework and drying her hands with a rag. For a moment, her brow knitted in confusion, and for that moment I took a mental inventory on what the years had done to the woman I’d married. She had lighter brown hair streaked with grey and she’d given up on straightening it, allowing it to instead become its mop of curls, blowing in the wind. She had the beginnings of crow’s feet and laugh-lines at the corners of her mouth. But her skin was still golden in the sun, and her eyes were still big and bright, and when she saw through the stone to the man I had been, her hand shot to her mouth, and she whispered my name, “Holt.”
She did not look happy to see me. Why should she? The husband taken was not the husband returned. But after a moment’s hesitation she came down the steps and approached, in something like apprehension, before rushing the rest of the distance to hurl her arms around me. “Holt,” she said again, and “Holt,” and when I failed to raise my arms to return the embrace, “Oh, Holt, my love. Look what they’ve done to you.”
I knew I looked different, even allowing for the difference between flesh and stone. I did not wear quite the same face. I was stone and that meant I’d been weathered by ten years of rain and snow. My features had been smoothed of some of their lines. My body below had been protected, insofar as it could be, by the very clothes I’d been wearing when the keepers of the stone gallery spoke the words of transformation; and so above my stone form I wore a stone jacket, and stone trousers, and stone shoes, and they were all parts of me now, just like my exposed hands and wrists and face. I’d been wearing a brimmed hat before my petrification and had declined to take it off, presuming that it might protect my features from rain. But wind had found a way to drive the storms into my stone face, from time to time, and so it too showed the march of time; or so it had looked to me on my journey, when I found my reflection in glass windows, or in the puddles on the ground. It had to be shocking for her, as the mark time had made on her own still-beautiful face would have been shocking for me, had I been a man capable of seeing it in the way a man would.
I said, “It’s good to see you,” and I think she might have known that I only said it because it was something an absent husband should say, when he makes it back home after an absence of many years. But already I knew it was not. I could feel dull relief that she was alive and that she was well, but not the surging joy that should have come with seeing her again. She had become something I perceived at a distance, through a grey curtain that I could not part.
Then the door slammed again, and I saw that a man had left the house.
I did not know him, not at first. He was no familiar neighbour, no distant relative, just a bearded man with round shoulders, with unkempt crabgrass hair and a pair of dark eyebrows so thick that the eyes beneath them appeared to view the world through a thicket of weeds. It was bad now because of his scowl, matched with a grimace that displayed a thin sliver of tiny, yellow teeth. He was clearly not happy to see my intrusion this close to the woman who was once mine, and the bed that was now his. I should have felt equal outrage at his very presence, but the grey filter of my nature prevented the sight of him from rousing more than dull interest.
It made sense, I thought. What was Ariella supposed to have done, with her husband petrified for a stupid barroom killing? Create an empty space where once there was a person and soon enough something else must come along to fill it. To the degree that I could have an opinion on anything, I approved.
But that was before he opened his mouth.
He said, “As if this day wasn’t already a big stinking pile of shit.”
Ariella introduced him to me as Defiance Cole, and he operated a small toolmaking shop in town, about five miles up the main road. Ariella specified that he was the grandson of Liberty Cole, who I did remember: a poisonous old bastard, ancient even when I was a child, who had once run the establishment in question. Liberty had been as taciturn while flesh as I now was in stone. Once upon a time, my father had accused him of hoarding conversation like it was made it of gold and only spending what amounted to pennies. I had never known that he had a wife, let alone descendants, and what Defiance said to me now would be a preview of the relationship to come.
“Fine. You came. Now get your murdering carcass away from here. You ain’t welcome.”
Still, there are two kinds of women married to men, those who obey and those that take charge, and Ariella had always been the one in charge. “We ain’t married yet, De; this is still my land.”
Then she took my hand, and I saw what happened to her eyes when she felt its cold, lifeless texture. “Long as you don’t want no trouble, you can stay as long as you want.”
Defiance said, “I going to have to put my foot down,” and this was I suppose the key proof that I was no longer a man, because the stupid, troublemaking, brawling idiot I’d once been would have been wrestling him into the dirt by now.
She said, “Your foot don’t mean nothing up or down.”
“You cain’t let him in the house. He’ll crash right through the floorboards, and break everything he touches. I wouldn’t even let him in the porch.”
Ariella’s eyes went angry at this, but she had to agree it was a reasonable boundary. “OK.”
I did not protest my need for shelter. I had spent ten years out in the open, immobile, the sport of both the frigid air of winter and the blazing heat of summer. I had been covered with snow and I had been the platform for fallen leaves. Pigeons had nested on my hat brim. I had felt none of it. But shelter was a feature of the life I’d known as man, and so I allowed Ariella to lead me behind the house, across the ragged grass of the field, and to the ageing barn left over from that one golden summer in childhood, when my father had let me keep a horse.
That summer had been the last uncomplicated season of my life, the last time when anything had felt possible, when I had felt that I could have been anything. My later life with Ariella had been something else, adult happiness, which is always a defiant cry in the face of adult desperation.
I had told myself that the horse loved me, and it had seemed to, nuzzling my hand and lowering its great elongated head for attention. But then my father’s debts had come due, and he had needed to trade the horse in exchange for forgiveness. I had screamed in his face that I hated him and for years I had until that hate was replaced with a coldness that never went away. Even as the life spark inside him started to flicker, and he became that seated presence who needed to be cared for and cozied, I had still been a preview of this man of stone, distant and unreachable. I had been annoyed at his neediness, and let him know it whenever I could. I’d been a bastard, and it was only after he was gone that it had occurred to me to feel bad about it. But I was past shame now. I was a stone man, and so I regarded the ruin as what it was, a rickety structure that remained upright out of sheer inertia. There were holes in the roof and walls that looked like they craved collapse, but I did not need much. Once in its shadow, I felt the vague distant satisfaction that was a ghost of the way of a man would feel, when he had walked a great distance and finally found shelter from the rain.
Ariella asked me if it would do and I said, “Yes,” because there was no other thing I could say. Defiance warned again that I better stay out here and not try to enter the house, and I said, “Yes,” for the same reason. Then she hugged me again and said we would talk soon, and left, the augurs of a loud argument forming in the space between her and the man she’d chosen as my replacement.
I did not weep. I did not attempt to follow. I did not sink to the dirt and bury my face in my hands.
I was stone.
As the clouds in the sky became streaked with purple, I heard the distant shouted voices. They were like almost all human conversations to me: muffled and irrelevant, a reminder of a connection I would never have again. Their content evaded me. I thought of the chair I’d broken over Mose Ferguson’s back. The savage pleasure of that moment was also a feeling I could no longer summon. The voices carried on the wind and then eventually stopped, and I let concern go the same way as everything else.
The night surrendered dominion over the world. The sun rose and climbed toward the sky, its passage visible via the shifting angle of the shafts of light admitted by the holes in the roof. I gave some thought to stepping outside where the sun’s blessing fell everywhere and not just in scattered splinters, but I who had spent years at a time limited to whatever sights passed before my stone vision and had fallen out of the habit of shifting, even in the slightest, to choose a different vantage point.
In early morning Defiance showed up at the entrance to the barn and stood there for all of thirty seconds before storming off, in a hail of curses. Ariella arrived after noon wearing a white sun dress, with her hair tied back and fresh colour applied to her cheeks. “Don’t be lazy, Holt. Let’s go for a walk.”
I followed her, not saying much, as she told me what the years without me had been like, about the long lonely nights and the suitors who had not taken well to being told that she would wait for me. Ultimately, she apologised, “I waited as long as I could.” And then she told me about how the men had stopped calling on her: except, when she thought that part of her life was done, cold practical Defiance, who had presented his case not in romantic terms but instead as an exercise in pooling resources.
“He’s never said he loved me,” she said, a clear invitation for me to say that I still did. “But he’s never been cruel.”
A brook passed through the woods a short walk away, pooling around a boulder that sat in the centre of the water, forever unmoved by the pooling at its base. It had been one of the sacred places of our time together, and it was by the dappled light of its rushing waters, that she laid out a comfortable old blanket, and began placing food taken from her pantry.
“A picnic,” she explained.
I did not point out that as a stone man I had no possible use for, and therefore no interest in, food. I understood that some rituals must be respected even when they no longer had any meaning. So, I sat cross-legged on my side of the blanket, hands planted on knees, while she bit into an apple and told me how good it tasted. I could recall any number of past afternoons when in idylls stolen from the hours when I had to haul goods and she had to labour as a seamstress to support ourselves, we curled up on this very spot and pretended for a few minutes that it was Eden and that we never had to return to the demands of the world again.
I think she wanted me to respond as a man. But she had to know that even if I could access a part of me once made of flesh, using it in any real way would have injured her. It was another gulf between what I’d once been able to have and what I would now never have again, and it almost kept me from noticing that as she spoke about the joys of the past, only some of what she said was true. All the bad parts, and with me there had been plenty of bad parts, she omitted; all the good parts she inflated with air and invested with a gravity that made the life of two people like a grand idyll the world would never know again.
One thing was certain. Whatever she remembered that had been so grand, her current life with the scowling, ungenerous Defiance suffered from the comparison. She kept apologizing for various things he had done, and saying, “But he’s a good man.”
It was possible to believe Defiance a good man. It was not possible, I thought, to believe me one. I had loved her as best I could, but a stone man is forced to face the whole truth and I could know, from the perspective of a creature incapable of self-loathing, that I had not loved her well.
After a spell she fell into a silence almost as deep as mine, one that held us both as the brook made its bubbling noises a few short steps from us. Then she said, “This don’t do nothing for you, does it?”
I thought about it and gave her an answer as close to the truth as I could get, which was that the man I’d been was cursed to sleeping in his blanket of stone, and could not wake. But as tears sprung to her eyes, I also said that if the past meant nothing I would not have come so far to return. I would not have joined her at this picnic with the food I could not eat and the cold brook water that would not provide comfort to my naked toes. I stopped talking before telling her that if being with her made me at all happier, it was something I experienced only as a certain lessening of the weight that pulled me down with every step.
Her eyes flared. “You’re the one who destroyed it all. You know that. You had to do what you did, because you had to break this like you done everything else.”
“It’s true,” I told her.
The man I’d been would have followed that up with a string of self-serving excuses, gradually returning the blame to her, but the man of stone could only acknowledge the absolute truth.
She returned me to my barn and thanked me for the pleasant afternoon before abandoning me to the deepening shadows. I knew she would come back tomorrow and perhaps the day after, but would soon come to reason that it hurt too much to see me again. Before long she would skip days at a time, and then perhaps not long after that it would be weeks. One day she would startle with the realisation that she had spent a snowy month not venturing as far as my new home, and she would rush to find me, still standing in the same place where she’d last left me, and my calm equanimity would suddenly make her hate me, would leave her pounding on my chest with anger at her own stupidity at letting me reside here. That was the only way it could go, and I knew this with the cold certainty that could only come with being a man of stone.
The night came and I stood throughout it, not moving.
And in the morning it was not Ariella who came to me, but Defiance.
He stared at me the way he had the prior morning, and after extended silence said, “So you’re really a pathetic son of a bitch, ain’t you? Stone or flesh, both.”
I did not respond.
“She never stops talking about you. Not after we got together and not now that you’re back. Still. Not only the good things. About how you drank and how you wandered off whenever life seemed too hard. How you had no patience for nothing but drinking and fighting. But also, how kind you was. She won’t stop talking about how kind you was, and how her heart broke when they took you away. Seems to me it’s the story of a piece of trash who wouldn’t stay home and take care of his woman, one who’s so selfish he came back as a stone man, to hurt her still.”
I did not respond.
He told me that he and Ariella had made love the previous night. He did not use the phrase, “made love.” He used the ugliest word anyone can, rendered uglier by the worst way anyone could say it, with a leer. He said it as if with that word he was not reliving the memory of entering her but making it an exercise in violating me through her, like a bullying dog will sometimes mount a weaker one just to make the point.
“She didn’t want to. She was in no fit mood, not after trying to get some decent conversation, or whatever, out of you. She’d been crying, and crying hard, and trying to pretend she wasn’t, and the last thing she wanted to do, once that stopped, was doing her duty by me. I didn’t force her. I want you to know that. I never had to physically force no woman. I ain’t the type. But she done it anyway, just to make peace with me, just to keep me happy ‘cause she now knows I’m all I got. She ain’t ever loved it with me, I can tell, but she always done that long as we been together, because that’s the price. And maybe it’s true that she makes it ok by thinking of you, but I want you to know that from now on it’ll help me to think of your worthless arse out here in the barn, thinking about what you threw away.” When I still said nothing he showed teeth the yellow of pus and he said, “I would prob’ly kill myself if I was you, if that was even possible.”
He said all this while keeping his distance, trusting in his legs to carry him faster than mine could carry me. But I did not lunge and after a few seconds he grinned with renewed nastiness.
What he did then was unlatch the hook that sealed the flap of his trousers, pull out his man-root, and baptize me with a glittering stream of his bottomless contempt.
I did nothing to stop him, and why should I? As a statue I’d known similar insults from more birds that could count. I’d been caked with the stinking white of their droppings, and had the fossilized turds colonise my shoulders and the brim of my stone hat, feeling nothing until the rain and wind washed the filth away, and left me clean enough for more birds to sully. It had been nothing personal to the birds. It was everything personal to Defiance. And while it occurred to me that maybe I should cup his face in one stone palm and pierce his eyes with pointing finger and pinky, it was a fleeting spark that failed to catch fire. I let him enjoy his piss.
When he was done, I told him, “I’m not a statue.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Why don’t you do something to stop me?”
I did not respond.
He waited, but if Ariella could not get more than a few words at a time from me, then neither could he, and after a minute or so he decided that this was satisfactory, and left.
Until the next morning, when he came back, and pissed on me again.
Ariella took me on three more picnics that week, two more in the following week, and one more in the week after that; and after that, they were irregular events, sometimes daily for as long as a week and then, as I’d predicted, sometimes not at all for as long as a month.
Sometimes she had some chore for me, like the time a windstorm left a tall tree partially uprooted and teetering in the direction of the house. It made sense for her to fetch me and have the helpful stone man use his superior strength to wrestle the trunk into some position that endangered nothing but other trees. After that and other necessary feats of strength she thanked me as sweetly as she could, but when this failed to warm me she averted her eyes, and I returned to my barn, to stand on the same spot I’d left, in what had become a little worn place, the opposite of a pedestal.
Defiance’s hate was much more faithful than the remains of her love.
He kept coming, kept baptizing me with each first morning piss, kept me apprised of the latest developments in his physical relationship with my wife. He told me when she claimed to enjoy it and when she did not. He took special joy in telling me of the times he woke her out of a deep sleep, in the wee hours when the view out their window displayed only a black void, when she resisted and he insisted and she ultimately agreed to take care of him, before she could reward her exhaustion with sleep. He used the word “dutiful” to describe these occasions, to underline that she acquiesced out of obedience, not passion. And then he said, “Maybe you could do better, if you could reach yours. But it’s under those clothes of your’n, ain’t it? It’s got a real tight stone blanket, don’t it? Why don’t you try chiseling it out. I’ll wait.”
I did not respond.
Live ten years as a statue and you learn that hours change when you have no way of filling them. Live as a man and time is a parade of events, some joyous and some upsetting and some impossible to fathom. You mark the days by the things that mark them, like the day you tell your father you hate him or the day your eye is blackened by someone you picked a fight with or the glorious moment when somebody better than yourself first says she loves you. Remove those markers and all of time fuses. Pass by a waterfall and it is a moment. Stop briefly and it becomes a place. Stand there forever and it is no longer a temporary phenomenon, but a feature, the water that has been falling forever, and will be falling forever. To a stone man the sun is no longer a glowing thing that crosses the sky and changes night into day, and disappears to allow night’s return, but an eternal and incessant shutter, that never changes and never makes a difference. So it was with the drama of Ariella and Defiance, and the many months I spent in the barn, bathed in the changing light without ever being touched by it. Her hurt and his abuse became eternal, and I felt them recede from me, like the movement of clouds as seen from the bottom of a deep well. They had nothing to do with me. Her hurt had nothing to do with me; his cruelty had nothing to do with me. I was stone, and if I was not content then at least I also did not want.
Then one morning Ariella showed up at the opening of the barn. Her hair was longer than it had been the last time I’d seen her, and duller, as if she hadn’t washed or brushed it for a while. There were tear tracks on her cheeks, and red blotches on her nose. She stared at me for a while, her chest heaving with hoarse breath, and said, “Direct question. Can you even say you love me?”
I replied, “Yes.”
“Just to pretend?”
“Say it, then. Say it whether you mean it or not.”
“I love you.”
It sounded like a rote line from one of the prayers that come at the end of a long and tedious church season, at the point when everyone is exhausted and eager for the freedom of a warm afternoon. It did not ring with sincerity.
Ariella heard it and she covered her eyes and when she removed her hand her gaze was hard, filled with the fire that went with trying to force herself to hate me. “Now say it like you mean it.”
“Do you love me?”
“I’m a stone man.”
“Damn you,” she said, and I did not see her again that year.
Not long after that, the snow fell in a blanket that collapsed another part of the roof, covering the dirt below with a snowdrift as high as my knees.
There were bad storms that winter, with raging winds that made my walls shake, that drove the small creatures of the wood to seek shelter alongside me. I began to notice the regular visitation of a black rat that sometimes paused at my feet and looked up at my face, its whiskers trembling. It was never with me for more than a few minutes, but in those few minutes it seemed to know that the stone giant it saw was not some strangely shaped rock but a living and thinking being as capable of seeing it as it was of seeing me. It grew fascinated. Like some of the pigeons and the squirrels of the park where I’d spent all those years as a statue, it became a regular acquaintance, not a friend because I could not be stirred to that condition, but nevertheless a thing that could communicate a shallow, default So there you are, that I was able to answer with the identical thought. So there you are, I thought, and it changed nothing at all, but at least it was a thought, a moment of punctuation that interrupted the silence.
And then one day I happened to be watching when a barn owl swooped down and eviscerated it with its talons, and where a man might have felt grief, I felt only the shifting of the Earth.
The winter passed. The snow melted. I thought that I would grow moss, lose definition, and become one of those ancient monuments human beings encounter once in a while, that look they might have once been a sculpture of a specific man, but are now so worn that they have lost all their features and are just vague suggestions of the identity they’d once worn.
I thought of making love to Ariella. I thought of the times we had to get up in the morning but delayed the day by a few minutes, to exercise our passions and laugh in each other’s arms. I thought of how sometimes we got silly and could not stop laughing. I thought of what it had felt like when she kissed my eyes, and they were just little visitations of memory, not attached to any identifiable feeling, no more beloved or mourned than the time I dropped a heavy stone on my foot and spent the summer with a limp. They had the same value, these two memories, and I could not give one more force than the other. They just were. And yet I thought of the lovemaking more, trying to coax feeling from it; and yet I struggled to answer her question, why I’d been so driven to come back.
Then one early evening in spring Defiance came to the barn, his gait uncertain, his eyes unfocused and his abuse of me slurred, and he laughed long and hard and said, “I bet you never even got cold, did you? Answer me, you great big grey idiot. Did you get cold?”
I answered honestly. “I’m a stone man.”
“You don’t feel nothing at all, do you? Not the snow, not the rain, not the summer days when it’s so hot a proper man can hardly draw a breath. Ain’t nothing good or bad to you, not even the slightest bit. It just is.”
“Let’s see about that,” he said, and he wound up and struck me in the side of the face with a claw hammer.
I was stone. It did not hurt. I felt the impact, though, and I felt an infinitesimal piece of that cheek chip off and fall to my feet. I did not bat him away with a backhanded slap that would have left liquefied brain matter spilling out through his ears. I didn’t even turn my head, to make eye contact and maybe terrify him into backing off. Time was a state of being. I waited for whatever blow came next.
None arrived. Instead, he dropped the hammer at my feet and screamed in my face from a distance of inches. His eyes were wet. He was bereft.
“I had something,” he said. “That’s what sticks with me. I had something. I had the best woman there ever was. I never thought I would but then she said yes and then I did. And you had to come back and give her dreams that couldn’t be. Now it’s all gone bad. Why couldn’t you just do the decent thing and die?”
I said, “I’m not alive.”
He did not piss on me that day. He just stumbled off, leaving the hammer, which remained at my feet in more or less the spot that had been the habitual place of my friend the black rat. In some ways the hammer turned out to be a truer friend. It did not wander off to conduct the necessary business of being alive. It did not disappear for hours or days at a time, and it did not get itself eaten by an owl. It stayed, and from time to time it occurred to me to take special notice of its presence, and think, So. There you are.
I heard more and more shouting from the house.
I do not know how long it was before Ariella came to visit again, this time favouring one leg and with a fresh shock of grey hair along one side of her face. She’d lost weight and was not emaciated, but was paler, more drawn. There was a swollen purple place along the side of her jaw.
Her gaze fell toward the claw hammer before rising again, to meet mine.
She said, “You didn’t come back for me, not even the slightest bit.”
“How come? And don’t tell me it’s because you’re a stone man.”
Though I might have told her that it had never been anything but ridiculous to imagine my cold lips kissing her warm ones, and more ridiculous still to imagine me holding her in my unyielding arms, these were sentences beyond my ability to feel, let alone speak. “I’m not a man of flesh.”
“You could kill him for me. I know you’re strong enough. Don’t you want to?”
“Even if he hits me?”
“Don’t you hate him for it?”
“I’m a stone man.”
She knelt at my feet, weeping, and I said not a word to comfort her, because I had no words to comfort her or heart to even want to comfort her. I remembered what it had been like to be beside her when we were both human beings and her emotions had grown as stormy as a tempest-tossed sea. We had fought hard, during our years together, because of the differences between what I was and what she wanted, differences that I suppose must always exist between lovers, when they have actual blood running through their veins. I had sometimes, but not always, known what to say in those days.
After a while we both heard the distant sound of Defiance calling in anger. She rose, wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and left without looking back, to attend his call.
In what remained of her life, she would return to me only once more, and when that happened, she would speak not a word.
Defiance showed up more often than that. It wasn’t every day. But on mornings several days apart, there were three or four of his urinary baptisms, accompanied by the usual mockery, though he’d lost the taste for that. He had to know by now that a man of stone could not be bruised by words, barbed or otherwise. There was no name he could call me that would get past my shell, no word-image he could paint about his treatment of Ariella that would infuriate me enough to get me to throw a deadly punch.
Then one morning he showed up with a sledgehammer.
The smaller hammer had chipped me. The sledgehammer was heavier, meant for breaking large rocks into smaller ones. The first time it flew, half of my right hand turned to powder. He stumbled backward, both horrified by this and oddly thrilled by it. He asked me if it hurt. I told him no. He wound up again and struck my lower arm, scattering rock chips and inflicting a hairline crack from my elbow to my wrist. He laughed at this but didn’t swing the sledge again, in part because he was breathing like a man who had just run ten miles but also because he could do the maths and could see that if he devoted a day to my deconstruction he could reduce me to gravel in a matter of hours, leaving himself with no other form of satisfaction. He vomited, left the sledgehammer at my feet, and stumbled off, promising to return the next morning.
All day the sun crawled across the sky. Then it set, and at night the constellations rose and traversed their own path.
Defiance returned the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, each day doing what damage he could do in a swing or three, before once again dropping the sledge and storming off, with a promise to return.
Did it hurt when pieces of me crumbled? Not in the sense that flesh hurts. Was it horrifying? Not in a sense that afflicts a soldier, staring aghast at his own severed limb. A man can die from the loss of blood and a man can go mad at the sight of part of himself, now ripped asunder and left as fodder for scavengers. A stone man, I discovered, cannot. There is pain, of a sort. It does not rise to the level of agony. But it was still the knowledge that part of myself had been ripped away, and it was still a violation, and if it did not lead to gnashing and wailing it was still sadness, still the awareness that everything I was had been diminished yet again.
I would never again pick up anything with that arm, which within a week was a splintered stump severed above the elbow. But what did I need to pick up, really? What had I, that was worth the effort of handling? What self did I have, that was worth defending? And if I felt pain, in what way was it preferable to feel nothing? I suppose some stone men other than myself would have cared to do what it sometimes occurred to me I should do, fight back, and do to Defiance’s limbs what he had done to mine, but again, it all felt so distant that it was not worth bothering. So I just allowed him to take my arms and to leave a giant crater in my chest and to rip a chunk out of my hip as he took my arms. I did nothing as he told me every day that the next day he would take more; as he promised that sooner or later I would just be a head, to bury in some place in the forest where she would no longer be able to find me.
So it went, until the very last time I saw the woman I had once been able to love.
It was a moonlit night. I heard her coming down the path from the house and I saw her stop in the open barn door. The light played on her silvery hair, now marked by a fist-sized bare spot that glistened in the darkness. Blood glistened on her lower lip. She looked at me and she looked at the scattered ruins at my feet. When she saw what had been done to me her right hand rose to her lips.
“Leave him,” I told her. “Go as far as you can. Save yourself while you can.”
She said nothing. Just dashed to my feet and ran away again, the soft thud of her footsteps fading in the darkness.
Time may mean nothing to a stone man, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be aware of it, not if we have reason to be aware of it.
When I was displayed as a statue, I saw no particular reason to keep track of the years. I was aware that they were turning, but I did not keep count.
As the armless statue in the barn, I did have some reason to wonder and so I counted the winters as they passed. Whenever the first snows came after the long summers, I added a mental entry in my internal calendar.
This is how I knew that two years had passed when the air around me turned to thick smoke, blowing from the direction of the house. This is how I knew that seven years had passed when time claimed what was left of the roof. This is how I knew that twelve years had passed when a stray dog birthed its puppies in a shelter of collapsed roof, and when the four of them emerged from the haven of their days as blind helplessness to gambol round my unmoving ankles as if I was the territory they had to win. That was how I knew that fourteen years had passed when a grey-bearded vagabond unknown to me chose to pitch his tent just outside what had once been the home of a child’s horse, and for three months used me as the helpless but unprotesting target of his conversation, all while calling me John. This is how I knew that seventeen years had passed the day a storm of historic proportions passed by, and the rain did not stop for eight days.
This is how I knew that twenty-two years had passed when I received the last of the visitors to the barn.
She came walking down the hill that had once led up to a house where over the years two men had found different ways to hurt a good woman.
She entered the space that could no longer be quite said housed a barn, and she studied me from what had been the threshold, waiting for me to say something.
She was made of stone, of course. On that last night she had taken the claw hammer with her, and it had not escaped me what she intended for it. She had done it even though she knew the penalty that she would surely suffer, for such a heinous crime; even though it would have been easy to get away with it, had she made any effort to bury Defiance in the woods and tell the authorities that he had run off.
“I confessed,” she told me, in lieu of a hello, and I understood at once that it was the only thing she could have done, to become a stone woman whose long hair was a solid curtain around her cheeks, and whose knee-length skirt was now like a cliff face, descending from her waist.
She was not the living woman I’d known. As I’ve noted, that one was gone; was dead, really. What stood now was something else, something I was now meeting for the first time.
I said, “They gave you a longer sentence than they gave me. More than twenty years.”
She said, “You broke a chair over the back of a man who was trying to hurt you. I crept up on a man as he slept. You were sorry about what you’d done. I showed no remorse. Mine was a worse crime. It was a wonder they didn’t give me fifty.”
I was impressed by the long speech, which had gone on for some time, by the standards of the stone.
I asked, “Why didn’t they?”
“The sculpture garden was getting too crowded. People of flesh are always hurting each other. They needed to let some of us go, to make room for the next.”
I had no hand for her to take. Both my arms were still rubble at my feet. But she gestured for me to join her and this I did, walking at her side as she took me down the familiar and overgrown path to our favourite spot, on the shores of that brook. On the way she told me that the house in which she and I had lived was not only a blackened shell, having burned to the ground on, I presumed, the day of the thick smoke. It must have been some time, she said, because there were now two trees growing out of it. Someday soon, she said, it would be impossible to tell that there had ever been a house there at all, and I said nothing, because there was nothing I could do with this information.
Then we reached our imagined Eden, and she told me what we had to do.
I obeyed, wading into the creek water and making my way to that boulder which rose above the waters, like a miniature continent that had yet to be settled. I had no arms to climb with, but she had arms strong enough to lift me, and she used all that strength to grasp me by my hips and slide me upward until my weight lay balanced on the summit. Undignified it may have been. But what is dignity?
Then she splashed around to the other side of the boulder and used her intact limbs to ascend. She was as graceful as stone as she’d been in life, and it was more like hopping up, than climbing. Once she was standing above me, she took me under my foreshortened arms and helped lift me to my feet. Even without my arms I would not have known how to embrace her, as it had been many years and my human knowledge of such things had atrophied to almost nothing. But she slipped her intact arms around my waist and pulled me to her, until there was not the width of a finger between her lips and mine. It demanded response. I could not embrace her back, but I could lift my cracked stumps until they each touched her upper arms, and I could meet her eyes from a little height, and look on her with a nearness to another being that I had not experienced since my days as a man.
This was not a triumph of love. There was still no deep emotion and still no surge of passion. Even affection, the way men and women of flesh know it, was lost to us, and would never come again. But it was almost as a woman, so close to that state that it almost failed to matter, that Ariella peered back at me and said, “If you’re wondering how I saw fit to forgive you, you can stop. I didn’t.”
“But I’m stone too. I can’t feel angry at you anymore. And this is where I’ve come to rest, the last place where I knew how to be happy. If you want, we can rest together.”
“Good,” I agreed.
We studied each other for a little bit, then brushed lips and by mutual unspoken agreement froze in place. We remained fixed at that moment, beneath the sun and the stars and above the sound of bubbling water, determined to stay until that brook ground both the pedestal and the lovers who stood there first to gravel and then to dust. It has been many, many summers and winters since that moment, and the boulder still stands, though we both sense that it might be narrower at its base. Collapse does not feel imminent, except in the sense that all things are, to those made of stone, tomorrow’s sunrise being just as far away to us as the very end of the world.
Until then, time has done what time does. It has passed, but it has ceased being a parade of things that happen, and returned to what we know it always was, a tableau of things that are.
About the Author
Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). His latest release was the audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media), which features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” Adam lives in Florida with his wife Judi and a trio of chaotic paladin cats.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINEto read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the June 2021 issue, which also features work by Sam J. Miller, Sofia Samatar, Timothy Mudie, Adam R. Shannon, Nalo Hopkinson, Theodora Goss, Endria Isa Richardson, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $US3.99 ($5), or subscribe to the ebook edition at a via the link below.