The Brahan Stone

For Ali Smith, through whose perfectly formed prose I caught a glimpse of this story.

“He … flung his stone into the sea with the prediction that only a strange and misshaped child of the far future would ever find it again.”

Ali Smith, ‘Bookshop Time’,
from Browse, edited by Henry Hitchings

First Present

My hair whips my face, like snakes. The sand stings my eyes, it’s in my teeth and it hisses across my boots.

I turn round for a moment to clear my eyes and see my footsteps disappearing in the wind. And there’s that pattern: one full footprint and one on the left where it’s just my toes. Foot, toes, foot, toes, foot, toes, as far as I can see.

I hunch my shoulders as close as I can get them to my neck and wrap my arms tightly around my shivering body. “It’s a lazy wind up here,” Dad once told me. “It doesn’t bother to travel past you, just runs straight through your ribs.”

Even with the layers I dragged on before I came out here this morning – my vest, my pyjama jacket, dad’s thick, checked shirt, his rough woollen sweater that still smells of him, mum’s oilskin coat – the North Easterly finds its way through to my skin and bones.

If my body is cold, my legs are far worse. The jeans that I pulled on over my pyjama trousers are now soaked through after that squall hit the beach a few minutes ago. And the two pairs of socks inside my boots are doing nothing to keep the chill out of my toes.

My toes. One lot just as God meant them to be, long like dad’s, as slim as mum’s. And the other ones, just a clenched claw. Those toes feel the cold much more than the good ones. My left hand isn’t any better. The fingers are half the size of my right hand and they’re pointing down at the sand, where the tendons in my wrist stop my hand from cradling my shaking body. The fingers are fidgeting around inside my sealskin mitten, but that has nothing to do with the cold. Even when I’m warm in my bedroom or next to the kitchen fire, my left hand, arm and leg have a dance of their own. When I’m feeling strong and not so tired, I can control the twitching and trembling. But out here, with the white foam in my face, and the screaming wind, and the crash of the North Sea, I don’t have any say in what my left side does.

I walk on, into the wind, up the beach, away from mum, away from home. It’s barely six in the morning. Mum won’t miss me for at least another hour.

At last there’s a break in the endless sand. The tide has cut a channel on its way out and the water has uncovered a bed of stones, glistening, dark and smooth. I bend down, catch myself, stand up again, take off my right mitten, tuck it into the side pocket of my oilskin and crouch down again. I’m looking for the perfect skimmer.

I don’t notice the cold now – not the weather and not the water that’s running through my fingers. I finger the stones aside, flick this one and pick up that one, then turn it over and chuck it away. The skimmer has to be here, the one that will skip over wave after wave and maybe find its way out to wherever Dad is. Twelve is my furthest, a skip for each year of my life. It’s no distance at all, but it’s further than I’ve ever dared to go into the sea.

A perfect skimmer has to be longer than it is wide, flat but with some weight behind it, preferably pointed at one end, the other end round enough to fit into my palm. It has to be here. This is my last chance. There will be no stone skimming here tomorrow or ever again. Today, we’re leaving for good.

There are a few likely skimmers but I spot an ugly one. Not smooth, not rounded, not flat, not at all symmetrical. Rough and ragged, with a hole at its heart. I can’t tell you why I pick it up. By this point, my fingers have lost almost all feeling but they’re clutching this stone tightly. I stand up, any thought of skimming washed out of my mind. I look down at my clenched hand and it opens. There, in my palm, surrounded by my white, pink and purple fingers, is a very ordinary blue and black stone.

Something’s odd. The stone has a hole in the middle. And I know that the hole runs all the way through it. The stone didn’t hold any water when I picked it up out of the sea. But now I’m looking through the hole and I can’t see the skin of my palm, which I should do. Instead, there’s darkness. And there’s movement. I blink and rub my eyes with my claw of a left hand. The sand on my mitten makes it even harder to see clearly. So I palm the stone in the mitten and use my right hand to wipe my eyes again. The hand is still wet, and the salt and the sand sting, but at least the blurring clears. I put the stone in my bare right hand and look at the hole. Darkness and movement, not my prune-wrinkled skin. I shake my head, to rock some sense into place. I blink again and give the hole a closer look. There’s definitely something moving in the darkness.

The sun is properly up now. It’s trying its hardest to peer through the rapidly moving grey, black and white rags of cloud. In a bright moment, I take the stone between my forefinger and thumb, hold it up to the sky and stare at the hole. With my arm held out, all I can see is the same darkness and the same movement. This doesn’t make any sense. I bring the stone closer to me. The movement in the hole looks more like something I recognise, like a tiny creature inside the stone. Perhaps that’s it. Something like a hermit crab, that lets the water through but stops me seeing what’s on the other side.

My curiosity engulfs me. I hold the stone up to my face, screw my left eye shut and peer at the hole with my right eye. Nothing. Not even the little movement I saw before. I switch to my left eye, which won’t stay still or focus. But now, looking closely with my left eye, I can see a figure, a long way away, much further up the beach, walking towards me. I open both my eyes and look where the figure should actually be. But there’s nothing. No one. This is a trick of the light. I’m tired. It’s time to head home again.

Before I throw away this disappointing, misshaped stone, I give it one more go with my left eye, looking along the beach. The figure is much closer. It’s a man – I can tell from his height, his hair and the build of his shoulders. He’s still too far away to make out. I looked again past the stone, with both eyes. Again there’s nothing. One last time, I put the stone to my left eye. Now he’s standing right in front of me. My eyes – both of them – fill with tears. The man is smiling at me. He has his arms out. But I just stand where I am, because I’m certain that if I move my hand away from my face, if I take the stone away from my left eye, he will disappear. And I couldn’t bear that.

There’s a voice behind me. It’s faint, almost lost in the noise of the storm. I hear my name. Joanie. Mum must have noticed that I’m not in my bed and come out to find me. And I don’t move a muscle. There’s no twitch, no tremor. I just gaze at him through the hole in the stone, smiling back at him.

Soon, there’s mum beside me, wrapped in a shawl and wearing her long, billowing skirt and boots. And before she can say anything to me, I turn and tell her that he’s coming back. Dad is coming back. But the moment has gone. I quickly pocket the stone and fall in beside her as we walk home, our backs to the wind.

On the higher ground beside us, far away, I see an old man looking out at us. Or is it just the sand and the spray in my tired eyes?

 

Second Future

Your hair will whip your face, like snakes. The sand will sting your eyes, it will grate between your teeth and it will hiss across your boots.

You will turn around for a moment to clear your eyes and see your footsteps disappearing in the wind. And you will notice that pattern: one full footprint and one on the left where it’s just your toes. Foot, toes, foot, toes, foot, toes, as far as you can see.

You will hunch your shoulders as close as you can get them to your neck and wrap your arms tightly around your shivering body. You will recall your father telling you, “It’s a lazy wind up here, it doesn’t bother to travel past you, just runs straight through your ribs.”

Even with the layers you will drag on before you come out here on this particular morning – your vest, your pyjama jacket, your father’s thick, checked shirt, his rough woollen sweater that will still smell of him, your mother’s oilskin coat – the North Easterly will find its way through to your skin and bones.

If your body is cold, your legs will be far worse. The jeans that you will pull on over your pyjama trousers will be soaked through after the squall that will hit the beach while you are out there. And the two pairs of socks inside your boots will do nothing to keep the chill out of your toes.

Your toes. One lot will be just as God meant them to be, long like your father’s, as slim as your mother’s. And the other ones will appear like a clenched claw. Those toes will feel the cold much more than the good ones. Your left hand will be no better. The fingers will be half the size of your right hand and they will point down at the sand, where the tendons in your wrist will stop your hand from cradling your shaking body. The fingers will fidget around inside your sealskin mitten, but that will have nothing to do with the cold. Even when you are warm in your bedroom or next to the kitchen fire, your left hand, arm and leg will have a dance of their own. When you feel strong and not so tired, you will be able to control the twitching and trembling. But out here, with the white foam in your face, and the screaming wind, and the crash of the North Sea, you won’t have any say in what your left side does.
You will walk on, into the wind, up the beach, away from your mother, away from your home. It will be a little after six o’clock in the morning. You won’t expect your mother to miss you for at least another hour.

At last you will see a break in the endless sand, where the tide has cut a channel on its way out and the water has uncovered a bed of stones, glistening, dark and smooth. You will bend down, catch yourself, stand up again, take off your right mitten, tuck it into the side pocket of your oilskin and crouch down again. You’ll be looking for the perfect skimmer.

You won’t notice the cold now – neither the weather nor the water that will run through your fingers. You will finger the stones aside, flick this one and pick up that one, then turn it over and chuck it away. The skimmer will have to be there, the one that will skip over wave after wave and maybe find its way out to wherever you think your father is. You will have managed no more that twelve skips, one for each year of your life so far. That’s no distance at all, but it will be further than you’ll have ever dared to go into the sea.

You will picture the perfect skimmer: longer than it is wide, flat but with some weight behind it, preferably pointed at one end, the other end round enough to fit into your palm. You’ll say to yourself that it has to be there, that this is your last chance, that there will be no stone skimming here the next day or ever again. Because, on this particular day, you believe that you’re leaving for good.

There will be skimmers to choose from, but you will spot an ugly one. Not smooth, not rounded, not flat, not at all symmetrical. Rough and ragged, with a hole at its heart. You won’t be able to explain why you pick it up. By this point, your fingers will have lost almost all feeling but they will clutch this stone tightly. You will stand up, any thought of skimming washed out of your mind. You will look down at your clenched hand and it will open. There, in your palm, surrounded by your white, pink and purple fingers, will be a very ordinary blue and black stone.

Something will strike you as odd. The stone has a hole in the middle. And you know that the hole runs all the way through it. The stone won’t hold any water when you pick it up out of the sea. But when you look through the hole, you won’t be able to see the skin of your palm, which you should do. Instead, there will be darkness. And there will be movement. You will blink and rub your eyes with your claw of a left hand. The sand on your mitten will make it even harder to see clearly. So you will palm the stone in the mitten and use your right hand to wipe your eyes again. The hand will still be wet, and the salt and the sand will sting, but at least the blurring will clear. You will put the stone in your bare right hand and look at the hole. And you will see darkness and movement, not your prune-wrinkled skin. You will shake your head, to rock some sense into place. You will blink again and give the hole a closer look. There will definitely be something moving in the darkness.

The sun will be out by this time. It will try its hardest to peer through the rapidly moving grey, black and white rags of cloud. In a bright moment, you will take the stone between your forefinger and thumb, hold it up to the sky and stare at the hole. With your arm held out, all you will see is the same darkness and the same movement. This won’t make any sense. You will bring the stone closer to you. The movement in the hole will looks more like something you recognise, like a tiny creature inside the stone. Perhaps that’s it, you will think, something like a hermit crab, that lets the water through but stops you seeing what’s on the other side.

Your curiosity will engulf you. You will hold the stone up to your face, screw your left eye shut and peer at the hole with your right eye. And you will see nothing. Not even the little movement you saw before. You will switch to your left eye, which won’t stay still or focus. But now, looking closely with your left eye, you will see a figure, a long way away, much further up the beach, walking towards you. You will open both your eyes and look where the figure should actually be. But there will be nothing. No one. This is a trick of the light, you will suppose. You will notice how tired you are and decide that it’s time to head home again.

Before you throw away this disappointing, misshaped stone, you will give it one more go with your left eye, looking along the beach. The figure will be much closer. It will be a man – you will now be able to tell from his height, his hair and the build of his shoulders. He will still be too far away to make out. You will look again past the stone, with both eyes. Again, you will see nothing. One last time, you will put the stone to your left eye. Now he will be standing right in front of you. Your eyes – both of them – will fill with tears, just as mine are now. The man will smile at you. He will reach out with his arms. But you will just stand where you are, because you will be certain that if you move your hand away from your face, if you take the stone away from your left eye, he will disappear. And you will not be able to bear that.

You will hear a voice behind you. It will be faint, almost lost in the noise of the storm. You will hear your name. Joanie. Your mother will notice that you’re not in your bed and will come out to find you. And you won’t move a muscle. There will be no twitch, no tremor. You will just gaze at him through the hole in the stone, smiling back at him.

Soon, your mother will be beside you, wrapped in a shawl and wearing her long, billowing skirt and boots. And before she can say anything to you, you will turn and tell her that he’s coming back. Your father is coming back. But the moment will have gone. You will quickly pocket the stone and fall in beside her as you walk home, your backs to the wind.

Here on the higher ground beside you, far away and centuries before, I stand and look out to where I am about to throw this strange stone, knowing that you, my dear strange and misshaped child, will one day find it and will one day see your father again. Or will I just be the sand and the spray in your tired eyes?

 

Third Past

Joanie’s hair whipped her face, a snake attacking its prey. The sand stung her eyes, grated between her teeth and hissed across her feet as she walked along the spit.

Behind her, the trail of footsteps was disappearing in the wind. But the pattern persisted: one full footprint and just the toes of the other foot following it. Foot, toes, foot, toes, foot, toes, as far as the eye could trace them.

Joanie’s shoulders hunched as close as they could to her neck and her arms wrapped themselves tightly around her shivering body. “There’s a lazy wind up here,” her father had told her. “It doesn’t bother to travel past you, just runs straight through your ribs.”

Even with the layers she’d dragged on before leaving the cottage that morning – the vest, her pyjama jacket, her father’s thick, checked shirt, his rough woollen sweater that still smelled of him, her mother’s oilskin coat – the North East wind found a way through to her pale skin and the bones that had barely enough flesh to cover them.

If her body was cold, her legs were far worse. The jeans that she’d pulled on over her pyjama trousers were now soaked through after a squall had hit the beach minutes before. And the two pairs of socks inside her boots did little to stop the seeping chill from stealing the life from her toes.

Her toes. One set just as God had intended them, long like her father’s, as slim as her mother’s. And the other no more than a clenched claw. The toes on that misshaped foot felt the cold more keenly than the others. And the hand on that side of her, the left, was little better. The fingers were half the size of their stronger twin. Even as Joanie hugged herself tightly, the fingers pointed down at the sand, the tendons in her wrist preventing the hand from finding an easier, more comfortable grip on her shaking body. The tremor that caused the fingers to fidget this way and that inside her sealskin mitten had nothing to do with the cold, the wet or the wind. Even in the warmth of her bedroom, or beside the coal fire in the kitchen, Joanie’s left hand, arm and leg danced to a tune of their own. When she was feeling strong and rested, she could control the twitching and trembling. Out here, with the white foam flying at her face, with the air full of the scream of the wind and the crash of the North Sea, Joanie had no say at all in what her left side was up to.

She walked on, into the wind, up the beach, away from her mother and home. It was barely six in the morning. She’d not be missed for at least another hour.

At last she came to a break in the seemingly endless sand, where a channel had been cut by the retreating tide. The outgoing water had laid bare a bed of glistening stones, dark and smooth. Joanie bent down, caught herself, stood up again, took off her right mitten, tucked it into the side pocket of her oilskin and returned to her crouch. She was looking for the perfect skimmer.

Oblivious now to the cold – from the weather around her or the water that ran through her fingers – Joanie teased the stones aside, flicking this one, picking up that one, then turning it over and discarding it. The skimmer had to be there, the one that would skip over wave after wave and maybe find its way out to wherever her father was. Twelve was her furthest, a pitiful distance from the shore but further than she’d ever dare to venture into the surge.

The skimmer had to be longer than it was wide, flat but with some weight behind it, preferably pointed at one end, the other end round enough to fit into her palm. It had to be there. This was her last chance. There would be no stone skimming here tomorrow or ever again. Today they were leaving for good.

Among the likely candidates, Joanie saw an ugly one. Not smooth, not rounded, not flat, nor at all symmetrical. Rough and ragged, with a hole at its heart. Long after, Joanie could not explain why she had picked it up. By this point, her fingers had lost almost all of their feeling. But they clutched this stone tightly. Joanie stood up, any thought of skimming washed from her mind. She looked down at her clenched hand and it opened, her mottled white, pink and purple fingers revealing a quite ordinary blue and black stone in her palm.

Something struck her as odd. The stone had a hole at its centre. And the hole, she knew, ran all the way through it. The stone had held no water when she had picked it up out of the sea. But as she looked at the stone, through the hole, she couldn’t see the skin of her palm as she ought to have done. Instead, there was darkness. And there was movement. Joanie blinked and rubbed her eyes with the claw of her left hand, the sand on her mitten doing little to help with her vision. Then she palmed the stone in her left mitten and used her still-wet right hand to wipe her eyes again. The salt and the sand stung them but at least the blurring had cleared. Once again she placed the stone in her bare right hand and looked at the hole. Darkness and movement, not a twelve year-old’s water-wrinkled skin. Joanie shook her head, as if to rock some sense into place. Blinking again, she gave the hole a closer look. There was definitely something moving in what seemed to be bottomless darkness.

The sun was properly up now, trying its hardest to peer through the rapidly moving grey, black and white rags of cloud. In a bright moment, Joanie took the stone between her forefinger and thumb, held it up to the sky and stared at the hole. With her arm held out, all she could see was the same darkness and the same movement. This didn’t make any sense. Joanie brought the stone closer to her. The movement within the hole became more like something she recognised, like a tiny creature caught inside the stone. Perhaps that was it. Something like a hermit crab, that let the water through but stopped her seeing what lay on the other side.

Joanie’s curiosity engulfed her. She held the stone up to her face, screwed her left eye shut and peered at the hole with her right eye. Nothing. Not even the little movement she’d seen before. She switched to her left eye, which struggled to keep its direction and focus. But now, looking closely, and only with her left eye, Joanie could see a figure, a long way away, far further up the beach, walking towards her. Joanie opened both her eyes and looked in the direction of the figure – not through the stone, but where he or she should actually be. But there was nothing. No one. This was a trick of the light. She was tired. It was time to head home again.

Before she disposed of the disappointing, misshaped stone, she looked once more with her left eye through the stone, along the beach. The figure was much closer. It was a man – his height, his hair and the build of his shoulders told her so. He was still too far away to make out. Joanie looked again past the stone, with both eyes, expectantly. Once again there was nothing. For one final time, she put the stone to her left eye. Now he was standing right in front of her. Joanie’s eyes – both of them – filled at once with tears. The man smiled at her. He put his arms out. But Joanie stood just as she was, certain now that if she moved her hand away from her face, took the stone away from her left eye, he would disappear.

A voice called out from behind her, a keening, faint sound, almost lost in the noise of the storm. Joanie heard her name. Her mother must have noticed that she wasn’t in her bed and come out to find her. Still Joanie stood where she was, unwilling to move, gazing at the man through the hole in the stone, smiling back at him.

Soon, a woman wrapped in a shawl and wearing a long, billowing skirt and boots came to stand behind Joanie. And before the woman could say anything to the girl in front of her, Joanie said, “He’s coming back. Dad is coming back.”

On the higher ground behind them, I stood and looked out, from far in the past, to where I threw that stone, knowing that the strange and misshaped child would one day find it and would one day see her father again.

If you are interested in the old man on the high ground
and want to know more about him, look for Coinneach Odhar.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s