S H O R T S T O R Y
b y p a u l o d a c o s t a
m a n s o n ' s l a n d i n g , b r i t i s h c o l u m b i a
ALONG CORNFIELDS, past woods, across creeks, Francisco led the villagers to the birthing stones. Large boulders, christened by him as the mothers, covered the crest of the ridge on the rocky landscape of Serra da Senhora da Freita.
The Sunday excitement was so high that Mass was prayed on the trail while the rosary of people following Francesco trekked beneath dawn's first rays. The villagers could have been his goats, but for the prayers echoing against the rising escarpment. Prayers far louder than the tinkle of livestock bells.
Francisco had been criss-crossing the range since he was a child. First, accompanying his cousins and the herds of sheep, later, on his own with his goats.
In the height of summer, he climbed the top ridges. Ridges as familiar as the knuckles of his hand. He filled his shepherding days playing his fife, imitating the wind, the black birds and any creature that caught his fancy. At night he joined his herd in their wild bends of furze, tucking between the furry bodies to sleep.
"The mother-stones have been giving birth, pushing small stones out of their wombs, since the beginning of time," Francisco informed the stupefied villagers who clustered around him. "You are standing in the birth place of the world."
The villagers stared at the small iridescent stones cradled like oysters in the pouch-like notches of mother-stones. Once the men, women and children had satisfied their first curiosity, and being tired and hungry from the long trek, they dispersed for lunch. Florinda Ramos and the more reverent villagers, fearing the powers in the mighty stones, picnicked further away on the meadow, an olive stone's spit from the creek. Ti Clemente and the more adventurous placed blankets over the boulders, improvising tables for curd cheese, corn bread and wine.
After the meal, the children, attracted by the stones' layers of sediment that resembled golden scales, rushed to collect the oyster-shaped babies. On the laps of the mother-stones the children saw indentations, pouch-like notches where the birthed stones had leaped to life. Puzzled, they tried to return the newborn stones to their mother's arms. The young were enthralled in this task until they were dragged away in tears when the sun faded that evening.
Francisco played his fife, leaning on a mother-stone, one foot tapping. He smiled at his dog busily swinging its tail to the melody. Through the corner of his eye he watched the men distance themselves from the children's racket, meandering toward other outcrops of stones. They paced, hands in their pockets, curiously kicking at the boulders. Correia poked around with his stethoscope trying to hurry the birthing process, “Needs that extra little push, I can tell," Correia said, returning the stethoscope to his pocket. Animated discussions followed. The men waited anxiously for stones to leap from the wombs. They dreamed of catching them in mid-flight, "Better luck if they don't touch the ground," Mayor Ressaca voiced. Slowly, Ti Clarissa and the other women, tired of the young treading on their heels, trickled into the men's company and observed, arms crossed over bosoms.
"Leave them in peace. They've survived without your help for all these years," said Ti Clarissa, grimacing at Ti Clemente, her husband. The men ignored her. She slid her hand, caressing ever so lightly the contour of a baby stone's head. She picked up one stone and held it to her chest.
Ti Clemente, rubbing his callused hands together, gathered courage and climbed onto the top of the mother-stone. A long whistle of awe was heard. Other men joined him.
From atop the mother-stone, the view reached over mountain ranges. For an instant, the men believed they could touch the ocean of Hell's Mouth Bay to the west, and Viseu to the east. Both a day's distance on foot.
"It's true when they say the desire of the eye travels faster than the desire of a heart. A heart must pull flesh, bone, a complete body along," said Professor Manecas, and all nodded in agreement.
"It's a peek of heaven up here. What a view to be born with!" Padre Lucas pronounced, lifting the cross on his chest and offering a panoramic blessing.
"Nothing ordinary here," concurred Correia, placing a hand on Padre Lucas' shoulder.
"Lucky stones. Not like ourselves, born in the pit of the valley where fog and rain slice through our bones. We have to climb uphill to get anywhere," complained Ti Clemente, spitting a mouthful of tobacco.
"Sacred places are always sunnier," Padre Lucas reminded.
Everyone nodded in assent.
"These lucky ones," Mayor Ressaca spoke, pointing at the birthing stone under his feet, "born with a golden view. They only have to roll over themselves and tumble their way down the hill and into the stream where they travel places and populate the world."
"Born in golden cradles," concluded Ti Clemente.
The lowering sun bloodied the crest of the hill. Francisco shielded his eye and drew a sip of water from the gourd, keeping a curious ear on the conversation.
Ferreira, watching glittering sparks reflecting the sunshine, reasoned the baby stones must contain gold seeds, "All riches of the earth must be trapped in the entrails of the small rocks."
"Certainly closer to God up here," Pade Lucas insisted.
The Padre's words were lost in the excitement. The villagers huddled closer to Ferreira, not to miss a single word. Quim, distracted by the hares hopping across the meadow, and dreaming of rising pelt prices, pricked his ears up at the mention of gold.
"If it's true that these rocks are the seeds of the world, and if it's true the universe has started in this place, it follows that the world's riches must be contained in my hand," Quim concluded. He tossed a baby stone up into the air. "I'll pack up some," he added. This stirred a wave of consternation from the more reverent town folk.
But it was not long before they grew accustomed to the idea and Ti Clemente suggested, "Let us take the baby stones to the village and plant them in a field. We'll harvest a ripe crop of gold!" Ti Clemente cheered. He welcomed the prospect of divine providence releasing him from the back-breaking hoe.
"In this time of fortune, remember the dear Lord who has never let us down," Padre Lucas called out.
The villagers swore to secrecy and gathered up their belongings stuffing each pocket with a stone.
Having spent the day staring at the swollen mother-stones, they left without the good fortune of witnessing one miraculous birth.
"Shy stones," said Ti Clarissa, casting a last glance at the boulders. "I don't blame them, a whole town staring down at their bellies," she added, walking away.
Sitting on the ridge above the village with his goats, Francisco could see that the baby stones were not living up to expectation. Weeds proliferated, but otherwise, the fields were indifferent to the rocky seeds. The villagers, wishing not to disturb the stones from their golden task and the promised bounty of riches, watched their crops struggle. They remembered Quim's words, "Money germinates in the smarts of one's head," and grew uneasy.
Word spread that it would require excessive waiting for the stones to mature, produce anything worth their weight.
"After all, the world was not created in one day," reminded Padre Lucas. There was a ring of sensibility in the familiar words.
Winter was at the door and the grain cellars were not filled. Quim gathered the villagers in the town square. "We need to bring a mother-stone down here to get the trapped riches out of her," he asserted. They they would reap a harvest of gold. Every able body was conscripted to help bring down a birthing stone.
And again the villagers followed Francisco up the hill.
The first birthing stone was rolled down the slope in the belief that this technique required the least effort. But they witnessed the enormous stone disappear into the ravine and crash with a blast. Francisco's goats scattered. He and his dog spent the rest of the day gathering his herd while the discouraged villagers returned home. Quim suggested moving the village to the top of the ridge. Ti Clemente and other elders firmly refused, rooting their arguments and stubborn feet in the ground of the valley's history. Gil and some other youths, restless for a change of airs, packed their traps and moved further up the mountain side.
Francisco continued to shepherd his herd to the pastures while the villagers argued over the gains and the losses of relocation. Word leaked into the neighbouring villages. The secrecy of words could not be contained, needing to give birth to news, wanting to share the loneliness of the discovery. People from Hell's Mouth Bay and Viseu arrived. And later, strangers from days' journeys appeared wanting to see the stones for themselves. Most pocketed a tangible memory of their pilgrimage.
Francisco had enjoyed the first curious travellers. Their tales from faraway brought him new words, other lives. But the occasional traveller had quickly thickened into a stream of excursions, drowning his silence. More and more people demanded story upon story of the birthing stones' discovery, "If I don't take a little remembrance my folks will doubt I've stood where the world first began," pilgrims justified. The saddened guardian of the treasure watched and fell silent.
A reporter arrived to set up camp among Francisco's herd. He conducted interviews and probed for extraordinary stories while the world dangled by a thin thread of curiosity. Encouraged to reveal the absurd, villagers and pilgrims competed for the black and white of their glorious faces dressing for the morning front page, declaring witness to every manner of miraculous events.
"I'll be damned if I wasn't running the tips of my fingers over the womb of a boulder when it suddenly squirted a stone into my eye," Ti Antonio, from Hell's Mouth Bay, patch over his eye, proclaimed. He had regained vision in the opposite eye, he said, and promised to return annually to honour the birthing stones' healing abilities.
Padre Lucas swore by his Christian faith that stones were born at the peak of the day when the sun shone hottest. The mother-stone exploded from the unbearable heat. Ti Clarissa swore on her in-laws' graves the stones were never born in the heat of the day but slid out imperceptibly, without fanfare, under the concealing blanket of night.
Two men in white coats arrived to scribble notes, measure angles. They spoke of biotite nodules embedded in granite, flattened billions of years ago. They explained lithological cycles, although few people listened and even fewer mustered the effort to understand their revelations.
The stones' divine characteristics included remedies for diverse afflictions. Helped by those of a religious nature, Padre Lucas erected a chapel around a crop of mother-stones. The huge boulders served as natural alters where continuous candles illuminated the pilgrims' hopes. Their optimistic faith was ablaze with miraculous accounts of the power of the stones. On their knees, people prayed for divine grace to touch them next, believing it simply a question of time and perseverance before their prayers would be answered. The world carried a long line-up of supplications.
The demand for the stones multiplied. Roads were opened to accommodate the traffic and taverns were raised to feed the hungry. The village grew into a thin line that stretched along the roads to the top of the range. Dynamite explosions blasted the peace of the hills. Francisco's tranquillity disappeared. His fife's sound was lost in the thunder of the explosions. Even Sunday's silence, no longer sacred, was pierced by chisels on stone. The weekend masons were poor, but not willing to lose out in the race for a sizeable souvenir. Senhor Mario and other Senhores ordered carved mother-stones. Their mansions became fashionably embellished with the talisman of prosperity.
Francisco's jittery herd dwindled, sacrificed to the claws of traffic. The goats, increasingly suicidal, climbed the highest ridges, jumped off cliffs. Francisco counted more goats lost to the commotion on the hill than in three generations of wolves hunting for survival.
Francisco moved his livestock farther away to find pastures. The scarce green patches between the criss-cross of the cobblestone roads had been trampled. He knew the miraculous stones would never fill up his goats' bellies, satiate their hunger.
The crowding on the hill brought escalating clashes. Padre Lucas and the firm believers in the holiness of the ridge accused Quim and the miners of greedily raping the site for its riches. The miners swearing on the bible, and also on their picks, announced that the earth was given by God to be partaken of its hidden riches. The two men in white coats accused both parties of destroying the evidence that one day might answer the mysteries of the world.
An election nearing and a pressing deficit stemming from his self-generous compensations, Mayor Ressaca stepped in to referee the angry factions. He surveyed the ridge, listened with special attention to those who donated the fattest pigs and the strongest wine, and decided that all the claims were legitimate and settled the dispute fairly. Every faction received a proportional share of the stones and everyone paid increased taxes.
Mayor Ressaca's decision resolved the conflict until the miners exhausted their share of the hill and looked enviously at the scientists' birthing stones reposing lazily on public lands. Angry, the miners marched to the mayor's office demanding justice, shouting for equality, the right to work and to earn a living. Swinging picks was all they knew how to do. They brandished the picks their grandfathers had used to build the nation.
"They are just stones, for pits sake," Quim, their leader, shouted. It was unfair, Quim contended, that two men in white coats and a troop of pilgrims hoarded a resource that belonged to the whole country. The miners' labour brought far more wealth than those white coats. They were a blatant national burden, supported by miner's tax-sweated-money. And for what? The dubious purpose of staring at the rocks, elaborating conjectures in indecipherable words.
Mayor Ressaca, another election mandate looming, listened attentively. He graciously accepted the pigs and wine and, reasoning democratic equality, re-divided the remaining mother-stones proportionally.
On a mountain range in the interior, Francisco rested at dusk, contemplating the new electrified home of the birthing stones. As darkness fell, the distant ridge exploded into a fire of light. Francisco feared it would blaze the mountain down to charcoal. The glare obliterated the brightest stars. His dog howled, confused by the intense glow. Francisco decided to investigate the state of the world's cradle.
In the new town, Francisco peered into a shop displaying miniature carved miners pushing wheelbarrows loaded with baby stones. The next window offered carvings mounted on velvet stands. Another featured gigantic rosaries beaded from baby stones. Every shop had identical postcards picturing the pristine ridge of an earlier time. Memories for sale, Francisco told his dog and goats following him on the sidewalk.
Francisco meandered past a tavern reeking of vomit. He recognised Quim shooing out Manecas, the last customer, before slamming the door in his drunken face. He crossed paths with Ti Clemente, pushing a mountain of detritus, his downcast eyes planted on the rolling garbage. There were no hares sprinting on what used to be a meadow. Instead, a scurry of rats was diving into the gutters chased by mongrel dogs. The magpies slept, perched on dumpsters. Francisco's goats were attracted to the salty and greasy trash and refused to move on. He whistled his dog to round up the goats and to lead them onwards.
He walked up the new paved road leading to the ridge. He jumped the iron gate. His goats followed. A foot worn path led them to where the last mother-stone was incarcerated in glass, protected from probing hands.
Francisco worried the world would cease to grow and to renew itself. He wondered how long it would be before the mountain, the world, crumbled of old age and the forgotten birthing stones would germinate once again.
Francisco fell asleep against the glass case of the last mother-stone. He dreamed that the undermined mountain, bone-weakened, folded on its knees and collapsed. A deafening rumble buried everything in a clean sweep while, perched on the very top, he rode it downhill with his anxious goats on his lap.
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