By Divyam Chaya Bernstein
The woman sits at the edge of things and waits. Water drips from her white-blonde hair and creates puddles on the wooden surface of the bar. The woman’s face makes Liz want to imagine things but Liz focuses instead on the people who push forward, waving their twenty-pound notes in the air.
When Liz finally turns to her, her first thought is that the woman has walked right out of the sea, her hair hanging like seaweed and her skin the colour of sand. She has a kind of ugly beauty, blue eyes so pale they are almost transparent.
Liz asks her what she wants.
“Water,” says the woman. “And peanuts.” Her lower lip trembles with cold as she speaks. Liz is relieved to have placed her somewhere in the real world. She must be homeless, just come in for some warmth. It is early spring and the nights are still bitter.
Liz offers to make her some tea, but the woman wants water and peanuts so that's what she gets her.
The woman puts a pebble on the bar. “I hope this will do.”
Liz laughs, because she's sure it's a joke and because she fears it isn't.
“Don't you have any money?” she asks.
“This is what I have.”
Liz passes back the pebble and says, “It's on the house.” She doesn't want to take this conversation any further. She knows crazy when she sees it.
That night, as the rain beats down outside her window, she lies awake. She hopes the woman is somewhere warm but knows she probably isn't.
Liz is at the market buying fruit to take to her mother.
The woman is there.
She has a stall at the end of one of the rows, between the second-hand books and the junk. Liz had thought the woman had nothing, yet here she is, with her own stall and everything.
She moves closer. The entire table is covered with stones, hundreds of them, some as large as skulls. A few people hover about the stall, handling them. She imagines that they must be thinking what she is thinking: the woman is crazy. But each one selects their favourite stone, or reaches into their bag to pay, not caring that the woman is selling them something they could gather along the beach for free.
Liz shakes her head at the pile of worthless stones. But the white speckles on a black stone are snowflakes falling on the darkest winter night. The fine lines that crisscross a green stone are pathways through a forest. A stone with a blue circle at its centre is an eye, or an ocean, or a piece of the sky.
“Choose one for me,” she says. The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them.
The woman picks up a white, egg-shaped stone and places it in Liz's hand. In the sunlight, the surface of the stone is too bright to look at directly. She closes her fingers around it. The curve of the stone fits her palm.
“You're in that stone,” the woman says. “And there are birds whispering to you. One in each ear. If you close your eyes you'll hear them.”
She doesn't want a story. She regrets asking the woman to choose her a stone. But the other shoppers are looking at her now. She can't give it back.
“Five pounds,” says the woman.
The woman holds her gaze and says nothing. She pays the woman and puts the stone in her pocket.
In the early hours of the morning, when the sea and the sky have not yet emerged from the darkness, she sees the woman hauling the stones up from the beach, a full shopping bag in each hand. Her coat pockets bulge with the heaviest stones.
Liz takes her mother fruit salad again. Her mother's face lights up when she sees the pieces of mango.
Her mother takes a piece of mango in her hand and holds it tight as if it were a jewel. The juice drips onto her dressing gown. She has given up caring about such things. She stares out the window, looking at a land of perpetual sunshine, where mangoes grow on trees. A seagull swoops down and marches along the windowsill. She jumps to her feet and puts her ear to the glass. “It's from Danny!” she smiles, then grows serious as she listens.
“What does the bird say this time?”
“Oh, it's great news, Lizzie! He's met a beautiful girl and there's going to be a wedding. He wants us to come. Can we, Lizzie? Can we go?”
Her mother is out in the corridor shouting her good news to the nurses. Liz doesn't follow. She goes to the window and bangs on the glass until the bird flies off.
The nurses say she sleeps much better after her visits. It isn't about Liz; it never is.
She walks down to the sea, careful not to step too close to the incoming tide. She likes to come here after visiting her mother, but today she only paces up and down along the shoreline then walks back towards the town, before changing her mind and returning to the water’s edge.
The egg-shaped stone in her right pocket is pulling her off to one side, pulling her off balance. The whole of her right side feels heavy and cold.
You're in that stone. And there are birds, whispering to you.
The seagulls call as they swoop over her head. If she were to close her eyes, she might hear those imagined whispers. She must hold on to reality or both she and her mother will be lost.
She could throw it into the sea.
The stone firmly in her right hand, she pulls her arm back, ready to propel it into the water. She takes a deep breath, exhales. But her arm remains still.
She could just throw it in.
She can’t do it.
She places the stone inside a rusted tin can.
She leaves the can next to one of the pillars beneath the old pier, and walks away.
The guy who runs the market is at the pub that night.
As she pulls his pint, she asks about the woman, how he came to give her a stall, how she pays for it.
He tells her she pays for it like everyone else — in cash, up front. He frowns, quick to get back to his mates.
Was she too nosy?
She keeps an eye on him. He keeps reaching his hand into his coat pocket. He doesn’t say much at all. He doesn’t laugh when the others laugh.
A small crowd is gathered around the woman's stall. Many of the stones are now covered with fine pencil drawings.
“How much for this one?” asks a girl with spiky black hair.
The girl smiles as she hands over a ten-pound note. Liz looks at the picture on the stone. The grey of the pencil is faint but the scene is clear: a gate opens onto a garden filled with wildflowers. At the back of the garden, under an oak tree, lies a young woman in a long gown.
“You have chosen well,” says the woman. “That garden was once an escape from the troubles of the world. The woman and the tree are having a conversation that has lasted many years.”
Her eyes wide, the girl asks, “What are they talking about?”
“They are discussing whether or not to tell the king when he is going to die.”
“How do they know when he is going to die?”
“The tree has heard it whispered in its branches.”
Liz thinks of her own stone, in its tin can under the pier. Perhaps a part of her is inside the stone. Perhaps the woman saying it has made it so. What would her stone look like if the woman drew on it with her pencil? What would those faint lines reveal?
The only story that matters is Danny's story. She tells it to herself — the true version — to remind her of what really happened, or she will believe, like her mother does, that her brother is still alive.
Danny set out one morning in his fishing boat and never came back. Eventually there was a funeral. Without a body to lay in the ground, they buried his surfboard. Since then, she has felt the cold on her right side. If he were still alive, that's where Danny would stand.
One cold night, a traveller wandered over the hill and knocked on the cobbler's door, seeking shelter.
He knocked lightly against her forehead.
“You can't come in,” she said, in the cobbler’s deep voice. “We haven't even got enough for our own dinner!”
“I forgot to mention: I have, in my bag, the ingredients for a fine soup.” When he smiled she wanted to believe everything he said. “Let me in and I will make it for you.”
“Excuse my husband.” (She was the cobbler's wife now.) “He's so rude. Why don't you come in?”
The man brought a huge pot of water to the boil and pulled a stone from his bag. “This is all we need, my friends!”And he popped the stone into the pan.
“Miraculous!” she said. “Do you see, husband? We won't go hungry tonight!”
Danny made big stirring movements with both arms. “There is nothing as delicious as stone soup. But do you know what would improve the flavour? A carrot. Yes, a carrot would be just the thing.”
“You're in luck!” she said. The cobbler's wife pulled their last carrot from the cupboard and popped it into the soup.
He tasted the soup with loud slurping noises. “This will be a wonderful soup, indeed. But do you know what would improve the flavour even more? A potato. Oh, yes. A potato would be just the thing.” The cobbler's wife ran to the carpenter's house. She said that if they had a potato they could join them for dinner. It was agreed.
The traveller popped the potato into the pot and continued to stir. The smell of the soup wafted through the kitchen and made everyone's mouths water.
By this point she had forgotten that the villagers were stupid for believing the traveller. She could hear the soup bubbling in the pot; she could almost taste it.
On and on it went: a beetroot, a turnip, some parsley. Soon the whole village was gathered in the cobbler's kitchen: children perched on shoulders, mouths watering, bowls ready, and, all the while, the traveller stirring, stirring.
“Stone soup!” he said. “Stone soup for us all!”
The village had never tasted such a soup. And — would you believe it? — there was enough for everyone and not a drop left over. For one night, hunger and cold were a memory. The villagers returned to their beds with warm bellies and smiling faces.
“But how could a stone feed all those people, Danny?”
“That's the way it is with stories,” he said. And he knocked lightly against her forehead one more time.
It is almost dark as she hurries along the beach. Beneath the old pier an orange light flickers. She thinks she sees huge ravens flapping their wings around a fire. Closer, she can see it’s just a group of kids huddled together with their black hoodies, skateboards at their sides, chucking old newspapers and broken planks of wood into the flames. Perhaps the can is already in the fire, the stone inside it, burning. She quickens her step.
One of the taller kids calls out to her. She ignores him and searches for the tin can.
He calls out again. The other kids laugh.
All she cares about is the can.
The rusted metal peeks out from behind the wooden pillar, right where she left it. She scrabbles towards the tin can — her can — and picks it up. It is empty.
It's only a stupid stone. But her eyes brim with tears.
And then, there it is — the smooth white surface — just a few inches away. Her stone! How could she have missed it?
She grabs it before it can disappear.
But the stone by her left foot is similar to the one in her hand. She picks it up and studies them both. Which stone is her stone? They are exactly the same. And then she notices that all the stones around the tin can are white, egg-shaped. They all fit the curve of her palm. They are all the same. All exactly the same.
The crowd around the market stall has grown. She pushes her way to the front and has to wait before she can get the woman's attention.
“I would like another stone,” she says.
“You have already bought a stone.”
“I know, but I lost it.” Tears threaten again. She tries to keep her voice level. “I need to buy another one.”
“I am sorry. There is nothing I can do.”
“But can't I buy another one?” She feels absurd, begging to be allowed to buy a stone, when she is surrounded by people doing just that. “Surely I can buy another stone?”
The woman tells her to wait while she tends to the other customers. The woman is punishing her for not having taken her seriously. Everyone else in town takes her seriously. They wander through the market, a stone tucked inside a pocket or a bag, secretive smiles on their faces. They go about their business but all the time they are thinking of their stone, how it feels when they hold it in their hands, and what it means.
Eventually, the woman comes back. “You can buy another stone. If you lose it, there will be no more chances.”
“Thank you,” she says, her voice quiet.
The woman chooses a stone for her. It looks like an unshaped lump. It is larger than before; it won't fit into her pocket, and it will be heavy to carry around.
“How much?” she asks, a ten-pound note ready in her hand, another in her pocket in case the price has gone up.
“One hundred pounds,” says the woman.
Hours ago she would have argued, but she goes to the cashpoint on the corner. She hands over the money and the woman gives her the stone. The moment comes to say thank you and walk away, but the stone does not fit the curve of her palm. It is too big. She needs both hands to hold it properly.
“Can you draw something on it for me?” Her voice cracks. “I need it to show me something real. I need something true.”
“You must take it as it is.”
The woman returns to her customers. She has been dismissed.
Liz stands there for a moment and looks down at the unadorned stone in her hands. Then she puts it in her bag. Her right shoulder descends as it accommodates the extra weight.
She notices a large flat stone. Unlike the others, this stone has been painted. It depicts a woman emerging from the waves, dressed in clothes the colour of rain. Her hair hangs like seaweed around her shoulders. Her blue eyes are so pale they are almost transparent. The sea-woman holds a stone in each hand. The one in her right is brightly coloured with flecks of gold that sparkle in the daylight. The one in her left is completely bare. It shows nothing but itself.
She can’t decipher the secret of her new stone. No matter which way she turns it, it looks like a shapeless lump. The colour is neither blue, nor green, nor grey. Several faint white lines spread across its surface, dissolve then reappear. If this signifies something, it is in a language she cannot understand.
She returns to the market but the woman will speak no more to her about it. She walks around the town, the stone in her bag. She brings it to work. She takes it home again. Her right shoulder aches from the weight of it. She closes her eyes.
There are no whispers.
Why should there be?
Birds don’t carry messages.
Everyone knows that.
Everyone except her mother.
“No fruit salad today, Lizzie?”
“Sorry, Mum. I brought you something else though.” She takes the stone out of her bag.
Her mother stretches both hands and, slowly and carefully, takes it from Liz as if they are passing between them a sleeping child. She lays it on her lap, traces her fingers along the delicate white lines then cradles it against her chest, rocking back and forth ever so slightly.
“What does it say, Mum?” Liz asks.
The stone is the colour of the sea; the white lines, waves that might bring him home. It seems only yesterday that she was just a little girl, standing beside her mother, waiting out a cold morning at the edge of the water.
Her mother continues to cradle the stone with one arm and reaches the other towards her daughter. Liz takes hold of her mother's hand. It is years since she held her mother's hand.
Divyam Chaya Bernstein is a writer and cartoonist in love with stories of all shapes and sizes. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Middlesex University, specializing in fantasy and science fiction. Her short fiction has won a prize in The NAWG Open Short Story Competition and has been shortlisted in The Exeter Writers Short Story Competition. Her work has appeared in Irisi Magazine, The Human Genre Project and on MacGuffin. She writes in a variety of forms: poetry, micro-fiction, short stories and comics. Drawing on her background as a live storyteller, she also creates bespoke stories for individual readers, which she then writes by hand into specially crafted books. Based in London, she continues to love writing on the borders between fantasy and reality. She regularly publishes her poems, cartoons, and other explorations in creativity on her blog, ‘Follow the Brush’. She is currently working on her first zine, ‘Mythic Doodling’. Find on Twitter @divyambernstein.