The large flint stone he had prised from the ground along with the intractable buddleia root looked like a grey joint of beef. After placing it with self-consciously aesthetic intentions at the bottom of a pruned-back peach tree trunk, he speculated on how his own skull’s contents would eventually shrivel and its bony carapace crumble, long before that stone had even lost its memory of forming an integral part of the earth – once organic as man himself and composite as opposite poles.
The struggle he had imposed on himself as well as on the buddleia root felt as if it had been one with the very planet: a David and Goliath contest to beat all such ill-matched contests. Yet, David had only a small stone to sling, whilst he had the whole earth to swing. And if Goliath was David, and vice versa, there were no greater foes than self against the selfsame self where one was in an ugly mood and the other even uglier.
Several months later, he had all but forgotten about his tussle with the tussock, nor did he notice the otherwise unnoticeable stone when it passed under his mindless gaze positioned as it was at the foot of the stunted bifurcate of the peach trunk’s upraised arms near where he pegged up the washing on the revolving contraption of wires and metal stanchions.
The stone haunted him purely by the means of not haunting him.
When the Atkinsons took over the house and its accompanying garden, they did not have second thoughts regarding the configuration of dead trunk and stone. Even were they to be told that it was originally intended to be an item of fine art, one encompassing nature’s instability as well as its apparent stability, they would probably have laughed. They had very little else to laugh about.
Emily Atkinson had an inkling, however, although she was younger than those with no inklings at all. Even if she did not possess the words to express her thoughts, the thoughts existed nevertheless: that whoever had left that stone in such an unrandom position was now dead. He entered her dreams with less force than he did into her thoughts, but in the dreams he wore as a head the very stone that had stirred up both thoughts and dreams. But when his body took on the bark-hide of the peach trunk, like a skin-diseased Venus de Milo in drag, she always woke herself up.
The other Atkinsons had no idea of the preoccupations which Emily’s thoughts, if not her forgotten dreams, soon delivered. Their own preoccupations concerned the financing of the mortgage amid the frightening claustrophobia of a world recession. It soon became obvious that they had bitten off more than they could chew vis a vis the house they had bought: a negative equity that chewed them smaller and smaller without the courtesy of a warning bite – until the pips squeaked.
“Of mice and men,” said Derek Atkinson, as he sat with his family at dinner. This was the end of a statement which he had not considered worth starting. Even words receded, shrunk along with the rest of the world.
“Only half of which applies to this place, thank goodness!” jested his wife, trying to lighten, if not enlighten, the atmosphere.
They were an ordinary couple, a fact which belied their half-hearted attempts at oblique paradoxical humour. Emily failed to understand the implications. She was an ordinary girl who preferred unselfconsciously joking with some of her school friends about the shallow friendships that some of her other school friends represented, turn and turn about. A pretty girl, with no sign of whence such prettiness derived.
Derek had no mind of which to speak. His wit was gut-driven, his wife’s simply a reflex to his, misunderstanding each other to a greater degree than they misunderstood their own selves. Emily’s misunderstandings were merely as a result of her growing maturity that infected the posthumous wisdom of childhood.
“There’s a face at the window.” She pointed. The parents turned their heavy heads, having momentarily believed the piping voice. Emily resumed circling her pudding plate with fruit-stones, counting them off. “Tinker, Tailor, Inkling, Thinkling, Beggarman, Slinkling, Sling.” Then she said with afterthought: “It was there before you looked.”
“There’re enough real things to worry about without you imagining other things.”
Emily had had enough of afterthoughts. Yet her instinct questioned how anyone could possibly know that there were enough real things.
She ran into the garden in tears, without any comprehension of why she cried. The flint-stone, she discovered, had been moved away from the foot of the arm-twisted trunk. There in its place was a real head. Weeping, too. From eyes as well as neck. Pink peach juice.
This time, time was no thief. This time, she couldn’t wake herself up. Nor could her parents. The very earth had shrunk into its own sleep, whence it should never have been swollen.
First publisshed in Weirdmonger’s Tales 1993