Where the Stream Comes From
by Joanna Gardner
Gaelle's taxi pulled up beside the mailbox. Trees had canopied the mile-long driveway for as long as she could remember, but now grass and moss covered the gravel track, and shrubs groped into the opening from both sides. The wooded slope of Willow Hill rose from the valley floor in the distance, just beyond where her house sat in the forest.
The driver eyed the overgrowth like it might twine him up and make lunch of him.
"Can you make it from here?" he said.
Probably. Maybe. But the question was about the driveway.
Gaelle handed money into the front seat, stepped outside and shouldered her backpack. The cab's door closed with a swirl of air, a small cyclone of exhaust and the smell of leaves on the wind. The taxi pulled away, and silence rolled back over the empty road briefly before yielding to the rustle of trees.
She started up the driveway, the final leg of the journey home. And where else could she have gone? All she had in the world was a diploma—practically useless—and this house, rotting away in the woods. She had to come back to figure out where to go next, what to do with the long life that stretched ahead.
The house had been vacant since her mother's funeral. Mama had died a year ago today, a day before Gaelle arrived home for last summer's break. It was also the anniversary of Papa's death, four years before. She was still surprised that Mama hadn't drawn widowhood out into a longer, more morbid decline. Mama had seemed born to the black dresses, solitary walks, and the reverie of suffering, staring out the windows into a distance that wasn't there.
Gaelle emerged from the tunnel of the driveway and saw that the house had started down its own path of decline. One front window was broken, gutters had pulled away, and slate shingles had fallen off the roof. At least the stone walls were still upright. She unlocked the front door and stepped inside. Shrouded furniture on both sides shrank back into the musty gloom. A pigeon swooped past her face on its way to a window high over the peaked entry. She dropped her backpack and continued into the house, pushing through the swinging door to the kitchen and out to the garden in back.
Well, it had been a garden once. She crouched and began pulling crabgrass from the parsley, dandelions from the thyme. At least the mint hadn't suffered. In fact it had moved in among the raspberry canes, which needed drastic cutting. Weeds had overtaken the stream, too, and Gaelle knelt to feel for the water's edge, invisible among the matted grass.
She patted the ground, further and further in, to where the center of the stream had been. But the earth was dry. Flat stones lay beneath the tangle but no water. The garden without its stream? Unthinkable. No matter what else the grounds or house needed, her first order of business was to start the water flowing again, whatever that might involve.
Mama used to disappear down the path behind the garden to tend the spring that fed the stream, but she'd never invited Gaelle nor mentioned anything about what she did. Which made this another of the many mysteries Mama had left her to unravel on her own, like monthly bleeding and the arcane secrets of laundry. But how hard could it be to clear a spring? No doubt it was just dammed by leaf litter.
She made her way to the back of the rock wall. Wild grape vines bound the wooden gate, and the iron latch had fused with rust, so she climbed over. Unfamiliar sinews in her legs tugged at the effort; she was in terrible shape. No surprise, after four years hunched over philosophy books. Philosophy had seemed so vital once. She hadn't considered studying anything else. But where was all that wisdom now? Her degree seemed like nothing but a giant prerequisite. For what, she hadn't a glimmer.
Her feet landed on a flat, wide trail. It hugged the base of Willow Hill, parallel to the empty stream. Bits of black shale crunched beneath her feet as she walked into the woods, and leaves floated on the planes of their branches. The sun lit that green world as though she were moving underwater through a lagoon, from moss up through fern and sapling and ivy, and then the canopy itself.
The trail curved to the left, still following the hill, and stopped at the bottom of black stone stairs carved into the slope. Beyond the stairs a furrow of bare rocks ran through the trees, down the hill and into the stream bed. A dry waterfall.
Who or what could have cut these stairs? Certainly not Mama. They seemed as old as the forest itself, fissured in places, weathered, each step a two-foot rise with a shallow depression from the weight of many feet. But the trees pressed in around her, pushing her forward. The trail was her only guide, whether flat or a flight of stairs, so she started up.
The size of the steps made her feel like a child again. Except a child's thighs wouldn't burn with exertion, and a child wouldn't gasp for breath like a netted fish. At last she reached a step at a right angle to the one she had just climbed, and the stairs ended at a stretch of trail that ran along the slope.
But in the middle of the trail, an arm's length away from her, was a statue cut from rock, a bearded man weathering beneath the trees. He sat among a pile of fist-sized stones, rubble that seemed to have broken off something taller and settled around him. His gray shoulders slumped and his forearms rested on his thighs. A piece of his forehead and his left eye had fallen away, and his right eye socket was empty. That empty eye stared over her shoulder.
Sculpture here, of all deserted places. Had whoever carved the stairs carved him, too? Still panting, she reached out and held his jaw in her hand. He shuddered and leaned in to her touch, the weight of the hill contained in his motion.
She jerked away, nearly flinging herself down the stairs. His head turned. He lifted a hand toward her with a sound like a rock slide. And then he spoke.
"Who's there?" His voice wasn't loud, but it reverberated all the way down to her feet.
"Who's here?" she squeaked back. "What on earth is there?"
He looked down and patted his torso, thump-kunk, then looked back toward her. "I am."
"But you're made of stone!"
"I am. Touch me again." He raised his hand.
She shook her head, even though he seemed unable to see. The sense of his presence was overpowering, like the smell of Papa's pipe at the table after supper when she was little. No speaking was allowed then. It was quiet time, Papa had said, and he used it to pore over ledger books from the gas company. Gaelle had used it to draw pretend ledgers on the back of typing paper he brought home from the office. She drew columns of meaningless marks, like runes, stealing glances at Papa to see if she was doing it right.
"You're on your way to the spring," the bearded man said.
"That's true." Why was she replying? This conversation obviously couldn't be happening, no matter how that voice thrummed through her.
"Then here's your question: How?"
"Question? What question?"
"No, that's not right."
"What is this? I just want to clear the spring."
"Only stone can summon the water, and you don't smell like stone. You need my help, which you can have as long as you answer the question: How?"
Gaelle's mind spiraled. Couldn't Mama have given her a hint about this, about being quizzed by a stone man? But how could Mama have told her in a way she would have believed?
He said nothing.
She ran both hands through her hair, letting her palms pause to press into her scalp. How indeed. How to do things, how to know things, how to believe in talking stones?
She said the first words that came into her mind. "By listening to the wind, maybe. Especially when it turns."
Where had that nonsense come from? She cringed against the upcoming rebuke and opened her mouth to retract what she'd said, but he reached into the rubble and drew out a stone.
"This is for the spring." He picked up another. "And this is for the woman."
"Who?" She took the rocks. Their edges were sharp, their weight like granite. Had she actually answered correctly?
"You'll see." His head turned back to its original angle.
"How will I know her?"
"You already know how, remember?"
He became as still as if he had never moved, never spoken, as if he were exactly what he seemed. Gaelle stepped around him. She looked back, and then again, but he still didn't move.
She kept walking. The path stretched ahead. Leaves glided past, and the trail stopped at another set of steep stone steps. She started up, this time more slowly.
Soon she was wheezing for breath again. Sweat slicked the rocks in her hands, and her legs wobbled like water balloons. Each step was a hurdle, a task, a mini-mountain. Why do this? Why not turn around and begin fixing the house? She'd have to pass the bearded man again, that was why. And he would know to what use the rocks had been put. She continued, and finally the stairs ended with a turn onto another flat section of trail. In the center knelt a woman made of the same stone as the man.
Her legs were nearly covered with rubble. Her arms wrapped her torso beneath bare stone breasts, and her chin tilted downward at an angle, like Mama's had when she embroidered. Up with the sparkling needle, down into the white cloth, always stitching silky green thread into a tangle of vines and leaves. Every piece of linen in the house had received that edging—tablecloths, napkins, sheets.
But unlike Mama, this woman didn't move. Twenty minutes ago that wouldn't have bothered Gaelle, but now it felt wrong.
"Hello?" she said.
She held both stones in one hand in order to touch the woman's shoulder. First a fingertip, then two taps, but no response. Finally she let her palm rest on the stone skin and felt the woman quiver. Her face lifted towards Gaelle, stone neck grinding, eye sockets as empty and blind as the man's.
"Yes?" Her voice was low and molten.
"I have a stone for you." Gaelle gestured downhill. "From the man."
The woman's expression didn't change, but she looked down toward her own arms crossed over her midriff, her hands wrapping her ribs. "If I let go I'll fall apart."
Gaelle looked more closely and saw a crack in the woman. It began at the base of her neck, ran down her chest and between her breasts, and disappeared beneath her arms.
"Would you set it down for me?"
Gaelle placed the stone in the rubble. "It's in front of you, beside your left leg."
"Yes." An amused smile. "I can tell."
Gaelle held her remaining stone in both hands and studied the woman. What else could she tell? What senses did stone people have that she didn't? How did they perceive her, and how was she failing to perceive them?
"The spring?" The woman's face moved almost like skin.
"Good. It's been too long." She shifted, squaring her shoulders. "Here's my question: Why?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, shook her head. "Can't we skip this part?"
"That's no answer."
Gaelle let her head roll back on her neck until the sunlit leaves overhead filled her vision. All right, why? Why was she standing halfway up Willow Hill talking to a statue? Why did she care about the spring? Why not get a job answering telephones?
"Because of the way the water calls, I guess."
The woman said nothing for a moment, then nodded. "Take two of my rocks. One for the spring, and one for the child."
A child. Of course. Naturally there would be a child. She examined the pile of rubble.
"Any two will be fine," the woman said.
Gaelle picked two stones smaller than the one she still carried, each the size of an egg. The woman returned to her original pose, clearly done speaking.
Gaelle continued down the path through the trees, although her feet seemed less heavy against the ground. And if she touched a leaf, she thought she might dissolve into it. Without entirely realizing it, she started up a third flight of stairs, again along the dry waterfall.
At the top there was a stone child, sure enough. It sat cross-legged in a jumble of rocks behind a round hole in the ground. A dry channel ran from that well to the edge of the slope, to the dry waterfall that fed the dry stream.
Behind the child a vertical wall was cut into the hill, half-circling the child and the well. Layers of shale were exposed, leaf-thin stone strata glazed black with moisture. Strands of moss hung from the shale, and water trickles turned each one into liquid tinsel. On the ground, flat rocks were strewn around a shallow, irregular pool. The air was laden with a wet, expectant smell.
The child stared into its empty cupped hands. Its hair was cropped. Its hands covered its lap and Gaelle couldn't tell if it had a gender.
She placed one of the stones the woman had sent into those hands, letting her own hand rest on the charcoal-colored skin until the child's spine straightened. It raised its face and met Gaelle's gaze with eyes that made her pulse stutter. No irises, just pale yellow orbs like wet agates. Somehow she knew those eyes could see more than mere light. Thought, maybe. Or life itself. And now they studied Gaelle.
"You've come about the spring." The tenor voice was much too low for the size of that body.
"But you haven't let us in. Not the way the other one did."
"Other one what?"
"The other, like you."
"You mean Mama?"
The child nodded. "Yes. But you can try to answer anyway. Your last question is: Who?"
"What does that mean, I haven't let you in?"
"I think you know what it means. Answer the question."
How was she supposed to let stone people in? She knelt across from the child, who never stopped looking at her, looking into her. But that was the wrong question to think about now. Who. Who what? Who could you count on? Who cared about any of it, the garden, the spring, her pointless life?
"No one," she said, certain she was right.
"Wrong." The child's gaze turned down again, away from Gaelle. "I won't give you a stone."
She had come all this way, had submitted to interrogation by talking statues, and now this? She drew a breath to argue but instead her focus adjusted, a small turn of a knob. Forest light drenched her and the child. Her pupils dilated, and her body reset to match the frequency of green.
She leaned over and cradled the child's face in both hands. The child looked up but she didn't pull away as the stone moved beneath her skin. She felt the membrane that separated her from the child, felt it flicker and disappear, felt the rush that moved back and forth between them with that dam removed. The yellow eyes blinked with a small tick.
"You can take a stone."
She picked up the first one she touched, a pocked oblong to go with the other two, and let all three spill into the well. The stones clattered on the way down, each against the others for more beats than she would have thought possible. The rocks stopped with a far-away splash, and she heard the dark murmur of water rising. Moist air swirled up from the well, coiled her and the child into itself, and rolled downhill through the trees.
Story Copyright © 2008 by Joanna Gardner. All rights reserved.
Next: Geoffrey Says by Aliya Whiteley
About the author
Joanna Gardner lives in New Mexico and writes whatever seems like a good idea at the time. Her fiction has appeared in Reflection's Edge, The Rose and Thorn, and Rosebud. You can visit her online at www.joannagardner.com.