The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 9, No. 1

The Lives of Rocks

by Rick Bass

Lives of Rocks Things improved, as the doctors had promised her they would. She still got winded easily, and it seemed that none of her strength was returning—her digestion would never be the same, they warned her; her intestines had been scalded, cauterized as if by volcanic flow—but she was alive, alive again, and between spells of fear and crying she was able to take short walks, stopping to rest often, not on the craggy mountain on which she had once hiked, but on the gentle slope behind her house that led through mature forest to a promontory above the rushing creek.
            There was a picnic table up there, and a fire ring, and sometimes she would take her blanket and a book and build a fire for warmth, and nestle into a slight depression in the ground, and read, and sleep. On the way up to the picnic table she would have to stop several times to catch her breath—stopping and lying down in the pine needles and just drifting, was what it felt like, with the world still carrying her along—what a miracle!—even as she was lying motionless; although once she reached that little promontory, and built her little fire, and settled into her one spot, she felt fixed in a place again, as if she were a boulder in midstream around which the current parted, or a fleck of mineral laid into the strata of some far-larger rock; and it was a spot she strove to reach, every day, though some days it took her several hours just to travel that short distance, and there were other days when she could not get there at all.

She slept at least as much as she had when she had been a baby. Some days it was all she could do to get to the hospital for her daily treatment, so that the days were broken into but two segments, the twenty hours of sleep, and the four hours of treatment, including the commute to the hospital.
            Her nearest neighbors were a fundamentalist Christian family named Workman—a fact that had always made her laugh, for rarely had she seen them not laboring: the mother, the father, and the five children—three boys and two girls, ranging in ages from fourteen to two.
            The Workmans lived only a few miles away as a raven flew, though it was many miles by rutted road to reach even the head of their valley, were one to try to drive to their homestead—and then a long walk in was required. They lived without electricity or running water or indoor plumbing or refrigeration or telephone, and often were without automotive transport. They owned five acres downstream along the creek—the same creek that Jyl lived by—and possessed a fluctuating menagerie of chickens, milk cows, pigs, goats, horses, ponies, and turkeys. When they traveled to town, which was not often, they were as likely, once they reached the main road, to ride single file in the procession of their odd-sized and strangely colored, strangely shaped horses and ponies as they were to ride in one of their decrepit vehicles, smoke rings issuing from both the front and back ends as it chugged down the road.
            No family ever worked harder, and it seemed to Jyl sometimes that their God was a god of labor rather than mercy or forgiveness. When she saw them on the road, they were usually working—often pulled over in the shade of cottonwoods, dipping water from a puddle to pour into their steaming radiator, or stopped with their small remuda haltered to a grove of trees while they examined some injury to one of the horses' or ponies' hooves—and even on the occasions when all was well and the horses, or truck, were in motion, Jyl had noticed that they were ceaselessly working: the girls riding in the back of the truck knitting or sewing small deer-hide knickknacks to sell at the People's Market, the boys husking corn or shelling peas or cracking nuts, their fingers always moving, always working, in a way that reminded Jyl of the way in which she herself addressed the mountain, with her long strides just as relentless. Or had, back when she was healthy and strong.
            From the Workmans' valley came the sounds of industry at all hours of the day: the buzz of chain saws, the crashing of timber, the splitting of wood, the jingle-trace rattling of mules in chains pulling stumps and stoneboats to carve out ever more garden space in the side of the mountain beneath which they lived. Smoke from burning stumps and piles of slash and smoldering stubble-fields, as well as from their various woodstove chimneys, rose from that cove day and night, in all seasons, as if just over the mountain there were some long and inconclusive war being waged; or as if such a battle had just finished, and only the ruins remained now, still smoking—though always, the next day, the sounds resumed: the clangings and bangings, the shouts and orders and complaints, the buzzings and grindings, the hammerings and sawings, backfires and outbursts.    
            On her hikes to the top of the mountain and back, particularly late in the autumn when the leaves had fallen from the deciduous trees, opening up greater views of the countryside, there was a space where Jyl could look down from one of the deer trails that ran along the high cliffs and see into the Workmans' valley; and it had seemed to her, always, that the dominant activity upon that little landscape, and in that isolated little family, had been the gathering of firewood—the children trundling from out of the thicker woods, their arms filled with ricks of limbs and branches—and, even more so, the gathering of water—the children traveling back and forth to the creek, ferrying double-bucket loads with each trip, trudging slowly to avoid sloshing too much, but spilling nonetheless, the younger children having to set the buckets down frequently to stop and rest, and to massage their stretched-out arms.
            And in berry-picking season, the entire slope of the mountainside seemed covered with Workmans, each laborer wearing a straw hat against the bright sun, and dressed in faded sun-soft overalls, dropping their berries one by one into straw baskets; and down at their home smoke would seep from the chimneys on even the hottest summer days, as the mother, Sarah, boiled water for sterilizing the canning jars, and for cooking the berries down to make preserves and jam; and Jyl would watch them as she ran, observing them in little glimpses through the trees, in all seasons; and she would pass by.

She remembered a game she played as a child, back when her father had been living, often while waiting for him to come back from the wilderness—from the Far North, from the Andes, from China and Mongolia, from all the wildernesses of the world, all the treasured storehouses of elemental wealth. She had constructed wooden boats and then sent them downstream in the little mountain creeks, running along beside them, following them for as long as she could, hurdling logs and boulders, pretending that the toy boats were ships bound for sea, ships on which she should have been a passenger, voyages for which she had a ticket, but still they embarked without her. And though she knew it was only the skewed and selective memory of childhood, it seemed to her that that was how she had spent most of her time, chasing after those bobbing, pitching little boats of her own making.
            She began to craft little boats once again, while waiting at the hospital, or at home, at night, in the last few minutes before sleep, seeking to integrate something into her life other than sleep and pain. She whittled the boats out of willow and pine—catamarans, canoes, battleships, destroyers, yachts and pleasure boats—and scrolled up little notes inside dollhouse milk bottles dated and signed, “Your neighbor over the mountain.” She sealed them with candle wax before setting them in the boats and launching them afloat, to drift into the hardened lives of the Workman children; and as she had so long ago, she hurried alongside them through the snow and ice as best as she could, though stopping quickly now, due to the breathlessness.
            In each bottle, in each ship, she penned increasingly impressionistic entries, commenting on the beauty of the season, the beauty of the landscape, and the goodness of life in general. She crafted increasingly intricate vessels, too, and took pleasure in doing so—though as the weeks passed and the children did not come to visit her, she had pretty much given up hope that her vessels and their messages would ever be found—or concluded that if they were, they would be noticed and read by someone so much farther downstream that the identification of "Your neighbor over the mountain" would have no meaning.
            And that was all right, she supposed. It was enough for her to be speaking out to the rest of the world, to the wider world—enough to be striving for some other contact, to be reaching out from within the darkness that threatened to envelop her, and to be testifying, even if to a perhaps-unseeing future, about the beauties she was still witnessing, even in her fear. Perhaps someone—one of the Workman children?—would find the ships at a remote time. It didn't matter. It was enough for Jyl to be making beautiful little carvings—like prayers not so much to a god who did not exist, as to one who simply chose not to respond to such offerings.
            So she was surprised when the fourteen-year-old boy and his seven-year-old sister knocked at her door one afternoon, waking her from a deep sleep. There were still a couple of hours of daylight left, and it was snowing lightly. Snow was mantled on the backs and shoulders of the children, and she understood they had walked over to see her—had sacrificed precious time during which they could be working.
            “Come in,” she said. “I would have thought you'd be out hunting, in this good snow.”
            The boy, Stephan, looked surprised. “We've already got our animals,” he said, though the season had been open only a couple of weeks. He paused. “Have you?”
            Jyl shook her head, “I haven't been out yet.”
            A look of concern crossed the boy's face. “You're going, aren't you?”
            Jyl smiled. “Maybe,” she said.
            Stephan just stared at her, as if unable to conceive of a life in which meat, free meat, could be turned down, or not pursued.
            The girl, Shayna, took off her pack. Jyl had assumed both of their packs were loaded with extra coats and scarves and mittens—a flashlight, perhaps, and a loaf of bread—but instead, there were her ships, every one of them.
            “We were thinking if we brought them back you can maybe send them to us again," Shayna said.
            Stephan rattled the little glass bottles in his pocket, fished them out, and held them before her, a double handful. “We liked the notes,” he said. “We're pasting them into a scrapbook. They look real nice. I'm not sure we got the ships and messages in the right order, but they kind of tell a story anyway.” He handed Jyl the bottles. “Some of the smaller boats might get caught under the ice, but the middle of the creek will probably stay open all winter, and the larger ships will probably be able to still make it through.”
            He paused, having considered it more completely. “You could put the important messages in the big boats, the ones that you really wanted to get through, and the other, little, prettier messages in the little boats, so if they got through in winter, well, all right, but if we didn't find them till spring, then that'd be all right too, they'd fit in anywhere, being so pretty and all.”
            Jyl laughed. “All right,” she said. “It sounds like a good plan.” She watched them stomp the snow from their boots and dust it from their arms and shoulders like little countrymen; helped them hang their coats and hats on the door hooks as if they were proper adults, rather than children bearing adults' ways.
            The pantry was almost empty—she'd been able to drink a little fruit juice, and sometimes to gnaw on an orange for strength, or, strangely, raisins, having begun to develop an affinity for them, if not a craving—and the children wanted none of this, though she was able to find a couple of old envelopes of instant oatmeal, and some equally ancient packages of hot chocolate mix. They sat at the table where Jyl had not had company in several months. She tried to remember the last company she'd had, but the memory of it, the fact of it, seemed to get tangled in the snow falling outside the window, which they sat watching.
            “Mama said to ask you how you're doing," Stephan said. “If you need anything. If there's anything we can do." He peered sidelong at Jyl, evaluating, she could tell, her girth, or gauntness, to take back home to tell his mother—glancing at her and making a reading or judgment as he would in similar glance assess the health of a cow or horse, or even some wild creature in the woods, one he was perhaps considering taking. “She said to ask if you're eating yet.” Another glance, as if he'd been warned that she might not be trusted to give direct or even truthful answers. “She said to ask if you needed any propane. If you needed any firewood. If you needed any firewood split. If you needed any water hauled.”
            He said this last task so flatly, so casually and indifferently, as to illuminate rather than to hide his distaste for the job, and again Jyl smiled, almost laughed, and said, “No, I don't need any water hauled, thank you—I've got a well and a pump”—and expressions of pure desire crossed both children's faces.
            “But you need some wood,“ Stephan said, looking to the nearly empty woodbox by the stove—only a few sticks of kindling. “Everybody always needs wood, and especially split wood.” Another evaluation of her physique—the wasted arms, the pallor. The steady fright.
            “Yes,” Jyl admitted, “I could use some wood. And I've been wondering, too, what I'll do if I go out hunting, and do get an animal down. Before my illness—my cancer—I could just gut it and drag it home from wherever I'd shot it. But now it would take me so many trips that the ravens and eagles and coyotes would finish it off long before I ever got it all packed out.”
            Stephan nodded, as if the concern were music to his ears. “We can help with that,” he said, and she saw that already his indoctrination was complete, that work for him transcended escape and was instead purely its own thing: that from early on, he and his brothers and sisters had poured into the vessel of it, and this would be forever after how they were comfortable in the world. “We can take care of that,” he said. “You just let us know.”
            “Send us a note,” Shayna said, again quiet and shy—magic sparking in both children like the tapping of flint against steel.
            Stephan finished the rest of his hot chocolate in two gulps, and then was up and headed for the door, with Shayna drawn behind him like a shadow; and Jyl was surprised by the wrenching she felt in their sudden leave-taking. She followed them out to the porch—they had already donned their coats and were pulling on their gloves—and slipping on her own gear, hurrying to keep them from waiting, she went out into the falling snow with them, and down to her tool shed, where she showed them the chain saw, the cans of gas, the jug of bar oil. The battered wheelbarrow, unused since last summer.
            “That rifle, back there on your porch,” Stephan said. “It looked like an old one. Was it your father's or your grandfather's?”
            “Yes,” said Jyl. “My father's. I don't know where it came from, before that: if it was his father's, or not.”
            Stephan was already sniffing the gas-and-oil mixture to determine its age, and he looked up at Jyl as if he found her admission unimaginable—and he said, “Are you a Christian?”
            His expression was so earnest, his face so framed with concern, that again Jyl's first impulse was to laugh; but then her legs felt weak and the blood rushed from her head, so that she looked around quickly for a stump, and she took a seat and braced herself against the waves of dizziness, and the nausea. The snow was coming down harder: curtains and curtains of it.
            “No, I don't guess I am,” Jyl said. “I mean, I don't know—there's parts I believe, and parts that touch my heart”—she raised a gloved fist to her chest—“but the whole package, I don't know.” She looked up in the direction of the craggy mountain, invisible now in the falling snow. “I guess I find God more in the out-of-doors, and in the way we treat one another, than in any church. I've never cared to sit inside for anything unless I absolutely had to.”
            Stephan glanced over at Shayna with an expression that Jyl could not identify, and he gazed up toward the mountain himself, then hefted the chain saw and started up the hill toward a lichen-shrouded lodgepole. “You mind if we cut that one?” he asked, and Jyl smiled, shook her head, and said, “That was the one I was going to pick myself.”
            The saw had been idle for almost a year, and it took Stephan nearly ten minutes of cranking before it would even cough. During that time, Shayna and Jyl sat hunkered on their heels in the hard-falling snow, watching Stephan wrestle with the starter cord, panting and pausing to catch his wind—and from time to time he would look over at Jyl with the realization that not in a thousand years would she ever have been able to start the saw, in her weakened condition; and what would she have done then, with no wood?      
            The saw finally caught—went miraculously, suddenly, from weak and faint sputter to full-throated burbling roar, complete with belch of blue smoke—and Stephan stood up straight, with the relief and pleasure fully visible in his face.
            He moved to the tree and eased the spinning blade into the dead flesh—white chips flew like rice at a wedding—and cut a notch, which he slid out of the tree expertly, and then he went around to the other side and made the back cut. And as if following the bidding of some master anti-architect, in which there was as much artfulness in the laying-down as in the building-up, the tree eased itself into a graceful lean, falling slowly through the swirling snow.
            The tree bounced when it hit, and the dry branches snapped and popped and went flying in all directions; and even before they settled, Shayna had risen and was moving alongside the fallen tree, gathering those small branches in her arms, gathering a double armful and carrying them back to the porch, some fifty yards distant, trudging through snow that was now over her knees. Jyl watched and tried to remember her own childhood, and wondered if it must feel to Shayna as it once had to her, when she had been so small—as if sometimes the world were filling with snow, and trying to bury her.
            Stephan worked quickly down the tree, bucking it up, severing more limbs, and pridefully Jyl went out to help him, gathering her own armfuls of limbs and branches, and carrying them back to her porch, following Shayna's trail in the snow.
            They smiled at each other in passing, Shayna returning with arms empty for another load, and Jyl struggling, with hers full—and now Stephan had the lodgepole completely delimbed and was reducing it to firewood, spacing his quick and neat cuts in metronomic sixteen-inch increments as precise as the mechanical bobbings of a water ouzel perched on a streamside boulder, crouching and dipping ceaselessly: always the same distance, always the same motion, like a windup toy. It was not a very big tree, and they had it split and hauled and stacked within half an hour: a porchful of bright-gleaming new-cut firewood, and a fresh-lumber scent dense upon them, like the breath of new beginnings.
            They dusted off and went inside for a moment, to wash the oil smoke from their faces, and to pour a glass of water. The darkness was coming quick.
            “We'll be back tomorrow to get some more,” Stephan said. “Or as soon as we can. And to do other things.”
            “Listen,” said Jyl, “I know how busy you all are. I know how much you all have to do at home. This is more than enough. I'll be fine, really. It's overwhelmingly kind of you to do even this. I'll be fine. Thank you. Tell your mother thank you.”
            “We can't keep a regular schedule,” Stephan said. “There's so much to do at home. We can just come when we get our chores done.”
            “I'm here in the evenings,” Jyl said. “Mornings, I'm almost always sleeping. After lunch, I go get my treatment. But I'm here at night.”
            “When do you sail the boats?” Shayna asked, her voice a whisper, like the stirring of a bird back in the brush—more of a fluttering than a voice.
            “Afternoons,” Jyl said, “when I get back from the hospital, and just before I go in to nap.”
            “They usually get to us right before suppertime,” Shayna said.
            “I'll send one tomorrow,” Jyl said. “I'll send two, a big boat and a little boat, each with the same message, so that if one gets hung up, the other might still make it through.”
            “Oh, no,” Shayna said quickly, surprising Jyl with her assertiveness. “If you send two you can write different messages, because we'll find them both. We'll go upstream looking for them. We'll find them.”
            “Is that what you've been doing with these?” Jyl asked, “If one doesn't come by your house, you go upstream, searching for it?”
            Shayna nodded. “He takes one side, and I take the other. It's fun. We go after chores, and after supper. Sometimes we go at night, and use lanterns.”
            “Do you ever worry that one gets past you—that you never see it?”
            The children stared at each other. “We all keep a pretty good eye out for them, most of the day,” Stephan said. He paused, “Some of the kids wanted to put a fishnet across the creek, and check it regular, but Shayna and I didn't want to do it that way.”
            “It's okay if there's days you can't send one,” Shayna said. “We know you're busy, and that there's days you have to rest.”
            Jyl smiled. “I'm getting better,” she said. “It's good to know the ships are getting through.”
            The snow was still falling hard, and although such a heavy snowfall so early in the year assured them of a long winter, it also meant a reduced fire season, next summer; and knowing this, they accepted both the hardship and the blessing of it with neither praise nor complaint, and instead only watched it, as animals might.
            “Do you need another lantern?” Jyl asked. “Or do you all want to stay here for the night?”
            The children looked horrified at the suggestion. “We've got to be up early,” Stephan explained.
            “How early?”
            “Four,” he said.
            It was almost dusk. Jyl could still smell the gasoline on them and wondered if they would bathe when they got home, or simply crawl into the warm loft, surrounded by the breathing sounds of their sleeping siblings and the occasional stove-creak as one of their parents added wood to the fire downstairs, and the compressed hush of snow falling on the roof, just inches away from their faces as they slept in the gathered warmth of that loft. She remembered being healthy, remembered ascending and descending the mountain at will. “Thank you,” she told them, as they set off into the gloom, with Stephan breaking trail for his sister.
            After their light had disappeared, Jyl put on her heavy coat and gloves and got her father's rifle and went into the woods a short distance, and sat down beneath the embrace of a big spruce tree, and waited a few moments to settle in—to adjust her pounding heart, tired now from even that small exertion, to the space and silence around her. She took off her gloves and blew through cupped hands.
            She put her gloves back on, lifted the rifle, and waited, then, and listened to the falling snow. It was right at the edge of being too dark to shoot. She could hear the creek riffling behind her, and she listened to that for a while, lulled. Her cabin, not a hundred yards distant, beckoned, as did her warm bed—for a moment, her mind strayed ahead to the relief, the dull harbor, she found in sleep each night—and she began to feel ridiculous, tucked in so invisibly against the world, as if in a burrow; as if she were hiding in the one place where no one could ever find her, and the one place where she was least likely to find her quarry.
            She succumbed to a reverie, had already given up the notion of hunting, and was instead merely dreaming. She dreamed of traveling her mountain again: of traversing it that night, at times following the same trail the children had made going home, and other times making her own. It was still snowing in her dream, and the snow was over her knees, as it was in the real life. She moved with strength and steadiness up the trail. It was not easy going, but the labor felt good. The snow was falling on her face, and though she was wearing a heavy coat and gloves and gaiters, her head was bare, and at times she would stop and shake the snow from her hair.
            Time passed quickly, as if an hour were now only a second, and soon she was back on the ledge that ran along the high cliff of the mountain's west face. Looking down through the darkness and the slanting snow, and over the snow-shrouded canopy of the forest so far below, she could see lights moving like fireflies, a handful of lanterns scattered among the trees and along the creek, some coming and others going. The slow carriage of them was distinctly that of humans on foot.
            At first Jyl thought the lantern-carriers were searching for something; but pausing to watch the course and pacing of their lights, she understood quickly that they were engaged in some sort of labor; and standing there a while longer, with the snow piling up on her back and shoulders, the picture became even clearer for her, and she understood that it was the children, passing back and forth through the woods, carrying buckets of water for the cleaning, the cooking, and the drinking.
            The lanterns moved slowly from the creek to the cabin, the lights of which were not visible—perhaps extinguished for economy at that hour. From the cabin back down to the creek, the lanterns moved faster, passing through those same woods; and when one of the departing lanterns passed one of the returning lanterns, there was no pause, each continuing in its own direction—and though Jyl had no real way of knowing, it seemed to her that in such weather and amid such weariness, and at so late an hour, no words were passed between the travelers.
            Jyl remained standing, watching, as if turned to a statue. The snow kept piling up on and around her, and after a while—long hours perhaps, or only moments—the procession ceased, the water tanks had all been filled.
            The lanterns assembled on the front porch, and then one by one they blinked out, until only two remained. These two did not blink out, but instead turned and moved slowly back into the forest, again barely visible through the falling snow—disappearing at times beneath its burden, as if having submerged briefly, before reappearing, a little farther into the forest.
            The creek was identifiable only as a wandering line, an imaginary border in the forest at which all the lanterns previously had paused, at the end of their bucket-filling marches. The two lights began following that invisible trace upstream, the banks and borders defined and limned by their wavering brightness, as if the creek were embedded in ice and it was the lanterns' path that was cutting it free, releasing it and allowing it to flow again. And it was a helpless feeling for Jyl, being up there on the mountain, on the cliff, knowing she had not sent out a vessel that day.
            She tried to call down to the searchers, but the words seemed lost even before she uttered them—as if the world were snow, and speech could not exist—and so she tried to will the children to turn around and give up, not to waste their time; though still they came on, moving slowly, one on either side of the creek, stopping and starting: lifting up fallen logs, she supposed, and peering carefully into riffles and eddies, hoping and searching.
            There came slowly into her consciousness a sound that was unlike the other sounds and silences surrounding her: a jarring, clumsy sound of eagerness, hooves slipping on wet rocks: a clattering and splashing, then silence again. Her father's rifle shifted in her arms.     
            She sat up and peered through the lattice of branches. She heard the sound of quiet steps approaching, but then the steps stopped—she waited for five minutes, ears and eyes straining; she tried to catch the scent of an animal, but could smell nothing, only wet falling snow—and then she heard the animal crossing back over the creek, escaping; and when she rose stiffly from her crouch, her warren beneath the tree, and went to examine the tracks, they were already filled in with new snow, and the thing was as if it had never existed.
            When she got back to her cabin, and its warmth and yellow light, she was surprised by how late it was—by how she had confused the soft blue illumination cast by the snow with the fading light of dusk. It was nearly seven o'clock, and she was cold again, wet and shivering.
            She was still stimulated by the children's visit, and would have liked to stay up late—taking a leisurely hot bath, then preparing a small but elegant dinner and curling up in bed afterward, and reading until midnight, as she had once done in the freedom of her health. But she had extended herself too far, that day, and in the end, she simply sat by the woodstove, shivering and feeding it more wood. The propane lantern in that corner of the cabin sputtered and coughed to a halt, leaving only one lamp hissing, over on the far side of the cabin; and though the newer silence was still lonelier, the subdued lighting was pleasant, and she took a short fragment of firewood from the woodbox and got out her pocketknife and began carving a new ship.
            She had not worked more than three minutes however before fatigue overtook her—not so much physical exhaustion nor the brutishness of fear, but instead the cumulative fatigue of loneliness combining with all those other exhaustions—five percent chance of survival, the doctors had told her, five percent, five percent—and somehow, frugal and efficient to her core, she managed to rouse and walk the ten paces over to the other side of the cabin and turn off the lone remaining lamp.

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