The Blue Stone

 

Wi’ yer drums ’n guns ’n drums ’n guns, hurroo, hurroo,

Wi’ yer drums ’n guns ’n drums ’n guns, hurroo, hurroo,

Wi’ yer drums ’n guns ’n drums ’n guns

The enemy nearly slew ye.

Oh, my darlin’ dear, ye look so queer,

Why, Johnny, we hardly knew ye.

                                                                                                traditional

 

It was a year with hardly any magic left in it.  It was after a war.  A man the villagers came to call the old soldier lived in a tiny cottage down at the end of a trail, where it disappeared among the rocks.  Each morning he led his donkey into the rough hills, cut enough deadwood to load on the beast and bring to the villagers for their fires.  The old soldier wasn’t that old, but his back was bent, and he never spoke beyond making change for the price of firewood.  Other men held it against him for not taking a beer.  Some of them had been in the war too, and wanted his stories, maybe, or just someone new to hear them brag on what they’d done.  They tagged him the old soldier because of his bent back and his lack of speech.

Just another odd-man-out, and the shopkeepers, farmers and shepherds in the hills would have gone on as they had for ages.  But one night a monster showed up on the road, tore down fences and chased with hideous howling any lambs, cows or horses left out, frightening women and children behind their doors and breaking shop windows in the streets.  It happened once and was blamed on some man’s drunkenness.  It happened again a few weeks later, and when it happened a third time every man kept his gun close by, for the sheriff lived at the other end of the county and made himself busy, as he said, “with real crimes.”

Men stood watch, but the monster never came on a night when any of them were awake.  So it went with everyone half-afraid after sunset.  Then a farmer, up in the night with a pregnant heifer, saw the old soldier stumbling along the trail from his cottage, bawling in such a horrible roar.  The startled heifer bellowed out in fright, or sympathy, the farmer wasn’t sure.  Then his hunting dog under the house began to yowl as well.  In spite of the darkness the farmer followed at a distance and saw the old soldier holding his head with both hands, running helter-skelter into doors and walls, breaking fences, breaking glass.  When the old soldier turned crazily and ran back, the farmer scurried home and found his gun.  Yet at the sound of a sheepdog yowling in the village he stayed behind his own door, a yowling and yowling for too long, as if the dog wanted to be put out of its misery.  But then it stopped.

That sheepdog belonged to a young shepherdess who had come down from the hills that day and sold all her sheep in the market.  When her dog was cornered she jumped in and took on the old soldier.  At her courage the bent monster was reduced to a man again, but he kept up his howl, without any tears in his eyes.  His strange howl got the dog to yowl and yowl.  But after a time the old soldier found his tongue and began talking to the girl.  Full of remorse, he offered her a place at his cottage to keep herself and her dog.  She always slept with her dog.

Next day she saw how ordinary he looked, old beyond his years, yes, but with a familiar way she couldn’t place.  When he was up with his donkey cutting wood she went into the fields and foraged for wild roots, bulbs and mushrooms, enough to make soup that the two of them shared in the evening.  Her dog lay near her and would bare his teeth if the man came too close.

So then she asked him, “What turns you to a monster?”

“The war.”

“But the war’s been over for some time now.”

“Not yet, not by a long ways.”

“So where is it still going on?”

He got up and led her from the kitchen out to where the trail ended in a depression among the rocks.  “Here is where it still goes on.”

As he stared down at the hole she began to see that he was looking at something among the rocks.  In the twilight she saw a blue stone.  She bent down to reach for it.

“Don’t touch that stone!”

Her dog growled at her side, but she turned and asked him what the stone meant to him.

“That’s the last of my treasure.”

“Treasure?”  She wondered that a common stone should be called a treasure.  And so she asked if it was a keepsake from his home.

“Home?”  He choked out a laugh, but then he stared at her in the dark.  “You and I are outsiders.  No one gives us any trust.  If I tell you my secrets will you tell me yours in the bargain?”

“Yes, I will do that.”  And she thought as he began that the darkness freed his words.

“What I got from home, from my parents, were things they knew I couldn’t go far on, and they didn’t want me to.  They wanted me to stay on that dry-land farm year after luckless year, between hail and lack of rain and locusts.  But I wouldn’t stay, so they made a show of gifts for me.  My old man opened his box of copper pennies and pulled out a small bag of gold and silver coins¾gold and silver.  Later I saw they were made of ironwood, stamped and painted to look valuable, but worthless.  My mom baked up a hamper of biscuits for my journey, made with solving powder, she said, to keep me long.  They kept me long, all right, kept me long asleep.  Rising late day after day and without a decent coin, I got lost in the wilds.

“But then in the middle of night a man on a horse woke me and said, ‘Get your things and climb up behind me.”  His horse went sure-footed in the dark, and I had to wonder if he knew of a town up the way, but no.  He halted and told me to get down.  ‘Fill your pockets with what’s at your feet.’  I did so, with pebbles and stones, and then he gave me a hand up again behind him on the horse.  We rode on in the night, and near dawn he halted once more and let me off.  Then he rode away over the hills, and I never got a look at his face.  Except his horse was black.

“When dawn came I found gems in my pockets¾emeralds, rubies, sapphires, with a few gold nuggets here and there.  And a few stones.  I had a strong urge to go back, but there was no trace of where we’d been.  Then I found a road and a town.  I cleaned up and had a good meal at the inn.  And too much to drink.  I got clubbed and dragooned into the army.  All my treasure was stolen, all but that blue stone.  I’d fancied it and buttoned it in my shirt pocket.

“I don’t know why it attracted me, but later in the war I made friends with another soldier.  We stayed close in every fight and watched each other’s back.  He told me the stone carried luck and some kind of healing.  It did, and it didn’t.  We were overrun in a battle, and he fell onto me with a sword driven right through him, right down to my pocket with the blue stone.  The stone stopped the blade at my chest, at my heart.  I heard his last breath.  I felt his blood run down over me with enemy soldiers all around.  So the war is not over for me.  My back is bent from the weight of my friend.  He is still here.”  The soldier put his fist on his heart.  “And every few weeks I go crazy.  I don’t know.  Bloody dreams take me into battle until something else gets hurt, a dog or maybe someday a human.”  The old soldier paused in the dark.  “You know my secrets that I tell no one.  Now you tell me yours.”

The young shepherdess stared into the depression, just blackness at this hour, and said, “You don’t keep the stone in your pocket.  It’s there in that hole.  How can it be your treasure?”

“I can’t even have it in the house.  I’ll be staring at my own death.  It just makes me want to finish the job.”

She looked down among the rocks as she spoke.  “My story is not so bloody, but there’s plenty of death.  My folks were old when I was born, and not long after that the war came.  We had a dry-land farm raising grain, same as yours, but then the battles came our way, and our crop was burned.  We went out and buried the dead soldiers and horses as well as we could.  Maybe my folks took sick from handling all that death.  I nursed them, but they died, and I had to bury them too.  Battle after battle, people scattered in the war, and I had to fend for myself.  I found this starveling pup, and we raised each other in the hills.  I bartered some of what I foraged, mostly mushrooms in the burned-out forests.  But I got a few lambs, and Shep and I raised them, sold them and bought more.  We’ve been doing it a few years now.”

Then the old soldier asked, “You never wanted to come down and find a man?”

“Shep here is my partner.  Maybe you know a little about sheep.  They group together.  People group together too.  Sheep get sold off after awhile.  And people too.  The groups of people and sheep, maybe they don’t know better.  My sheep go off willingly when I sell them, following their leader.  But I know better.  Shep and I, we’re partners.  But you, you look like someone I should know.  Where was your farm?”

When he told her she smiled.  “Well, that was our farm.  What’s your name?”  He said it, and she stared at his face under the moon.  “You must be my brother, the one who left before I was born, the one my mom said would come home one day.”

He looked at her closely, but then her dog growled.  He turned back to the cottage to ponder this, but she called to him.  “Are you going to leave your treasure out here again?”

“That blue stone holds too much of my past.  It’ll kill me.”

“It may not if you take it on.  It may have some luck left in it.  Your friend told you it carried healing too, didn’t you say?”

“It’ll make me crazy, I know.”

“Shep and I won’t let you out if that happens.”

“Are you bold enough to stand off my demons?”  He saw her hard stare hold him in the moonlight, and so he bent down and fumbled for the blue stone in the depression, and when he stood with it again she saw his back was not quite so bent.  Inside the cottage the old soldier worried if he could take on this cold stone.  Maybe it had held death long enough and only wanted warming, but again maybe it was a piece of that blue mountain always standing high over him.  He took it to bed and slept with it.  In the night demons came howling into his dreams, but when he began weeping heavy tears they shuddered and stood silent.  His tears began to fill the rocky depression.  As he wept he saw them filtering down through the soil, water coming clean deep underground and flowing out far away in a clear spring between a cleft of blue stones.  In his dream he knew where that was.

Next day he turned his covers up, but the stone was nowhere to be found.  Then he felt wetness around his eyes and nodded.  Later she asked where it had gone.  He put his fist on his heart.  “It’s here, for luck and healing.”  And inside him he gauged those high blue peaks.

But she said, “Well, I miss it now.”

He smiled.  “Out in the hills there’s a blue stone all your own.  You may find it yet.”

Then they walked up the trail to the village together, and the farmer called from his barn, “Where’d you get a girl, Old Soldier?”

“She’s my sister.  I found some family after all.”  And the dog at her side yipped and skipped around them both and ran up the trail ahead.

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