From the author: An old college buddy contacts Allan to visit the “strange edifice of my rock house home,” as he put it, and to “salve my maladies and afflictions.” Intrigued and troubled, Allan takes up the invitation. What happens after is a deep dive into literature, obsession, and a desire for permanence.
From the highway where I parked my car, to the door of Rick’s house, my school-years friend, I climbed a mile of twisting, scrub oak-lined, tree-shrouded path that looked more and more to my satisfaction like an animal track the farther from the highway I traveled. Every foot into the late spring woods was a foot farther from everything else. When the sound of the last diesel truck faded in the leafy rustle, it was as if I had stepped back in time. Tree bark grew rougher, with gaps wide enough to slide my hand into. Roots crossed the trail like great, vegetable veins, and when I stopped the third time to recheck his instructions in the letter I’d received the week earlier, something large and ponderous crushed through the underbrush just out of sight. I stood, my heart paralyzed, his letter fluttering in my fingers, until the heavy snap of branches vanished in the distance and an unafraid mountain jay lighted on a rock near the trail to look me over.
Despite everything, I almost turned around then, but I’d lugged my suitcase so far already.
Rick’s eccentricities drove him to excess when he was young. He’d been a bookish, pale shadow in college, so had his sister, Lynn, but I’d been a reader too, and we’d found camaraderie in our novels, swapping books, discussing imaginary lives between classes. They were trust fund kids, unbound by finances, and their worries were not the world’s worries. By my junior year, I’d fallen in love a little bit with them both, but we didn’t have any classes together my senior year. Lynn grew increasingly quiet and absent in the way pale girls can, and Rick started haunting used book stores for rare editions, expensive leather-bound volumes with cut edges and sewn in bookmarks. I remember the second to last time we talked. He put an old book with an indecipherable title on the table beside him, which, in idleness, I picked up. He snatched it from my hands, his cheeks suddenly red, like blood under the snow, and I saw in his eyes a rage that frightened me. The next day, he tried to apologize, but all I saw was the rage. His skin became a furnace with it, baking me. We never spoke again, but I passed him or Lynn on the quad every once in a while, and I mourned the darkness in their eyes, the burnished silk of their hair. Few people know books. Few like to talk about them.
So we drifted fifteen years apart, until his letter importuning me to visit, to see the “strange edifice of my rock house home,” as he put it, to “salve my maladies and afflictions.” As misfortune would have it then, time lay heavy on my hands, and my office found me useless. Three weeks vacation and “more if you need it” became my prescription. A week in the mountains with my old friend, Rick, seemed like the best of the bad options. If there was a way to arrange it, I wouldn’t go back. Nothing in the world seemed worth the effort.
Two turns more up the tree-shrouded track, then I came to a small clearing in the woods, thigh-high with alpine grass and spring flowers. After the aged forest’s overhanging gloom, the sudden space should have lightened my spirits, but instead I felt a twinge of agoraphobia, as if the overwhelming branches held me to the earth, and their disappearance marked the opening of a gate between me and a grey abyss. My stomach rose. I staggered a step before shaking the impression away. His letter said the clearing was his front porch, but it seemed like any other undisturbed forest space. Certainly nothing manmade marked the scene at first. I looked for a minute to find it. The mountain’s shoulder swelled at the clearing’s other side into a black limestone cliff shot through with bright mineral lines. At its base, cut into the stone, stood an entrance, tall and pointed like a medieval cathedral’s, and when I drew close, the grass tips brushing against my fingertips, I saw that the door was stone too with a stone knocker in the center. Grotesque carving lined the recessed archway, hideous heads no bigger than my fist, all caught in mid grimace, tiny mouths filled with cat teeth and sharp tongues. Human faces, just barely. I smiled at the sight. Rick lived on a better Earth, a literary one, and where I’d failed in my bookish dreams, he’d clearly pressed on.
I used the knocker, the sound no louder than a pebble tapped against a boulder, but a few seconds later, the door drew back.
“Allan, welcome to Rock House,” said Rick, shading his eyes against the clouded sky. “I didn’t realize it was day.” He laughed. “I didn’t realize it was spring.”
He’d become even more slender since school, still as pale, but his face had developed middle-aged character. Distinct lines crossed his forehead. A patrician patina surrounded his mouth. His hand rested on the door’s edge, and he opened it more to let me in as a waft of cool air brushed my face, smelling of dark stone and deep places. Awkwardly, I stepped across the threshold and into the gloom. The door closed behind me.
My eyes adjusted slowly. Thankfully, I put my suitcase down. “That’s a long way to carry groceries.” Two hefty lamps at either end of a dark couch provided the only light. The ceiling was high, maybe twelve feet. Later I would notice the engravings that marked its surface, but now it only seemed black except for a foot-wide crystal vein that meandered diagonally across the room.
“Backpacks are the secret.” Rick gestured toward the couch.
No carpet covered the floor. The same black stone, polished to a glassy sheen absorbed the light, and although it looked slick enough to reflect an image, I could see nothing of myself within it, not even a shadow. Glad to be done with the uphill climb, I sat. Rick stood beside the couch, his arms crossed, a scattering of nearly white hair falling across his forehead and over his eyes.
“Your house is spectacular.” I turned in my seat. The walls bowed around the room, a rounded square, maybe twenty-five feet from side to side. Tapestries alternated with bare stone. A log smoldered in a niche cut into the wall. “It must have cost a fortune.”
“I had it built.” He leaned against the couch, partly sitting on the arm. For a moment he gazed around the room, perhaps trying to see it as I saw it. “It took time to find the right location.”
“But the effort! How long would something like this take?” I imagined craftsmen dynamiting the cliff face, burrowing into the mountain, and then widening their shaft into this chamber. The floor alone would have taken hundreds of hours to turn from raw rock into a slick black plane. Slowly, out of the darkness, two other doors took shape. It wasn’t just a single room. How big was Rick’s house?
“A project like this never stops. It takes a life of its own.” His voice sounded wan, like his complexion. “Remember, we used to talk about living in stone?” He rested his hand on his knee. “Beautiful, gothic palaces. Wuthering Heights. Prince Prospero’s castle. Gormenghast.” He sighed. “Khazad-dum.
“So, a nice brick bungalow in the suburbs wouldn’t be enough for you?”
He smiled. “No, not for me. Not for Lynn either.”
I didn’t have time to reply. The shadow that marked the door on the left shifted, and a ghost filled it. I started half from my seat, but then the ghost said in Lynn’s voice, “It’s been a long time, Allan. The sun must be abroad.” I’d almost forgotten how low she spoke. How she drew that contralto note from such a narrow reed, I never knew, but it recalled the nights in her brother’s dorm, the three of us sprawled across his bed on our backs; Rick at one end, listening; Lynn at the other, propped by a pillow, a book in her hand reading out loud. My back against the wall, I crossed the two in the middle, our legs intertwined. I could almost feel Rick’s bare foot braced against my thigh; how Lynn’s leg draped over mine so that when she reached a climactic moment in the story her calf muscle tensed, pulling me closer to her; her voice soothing us both, like a steady wash of waves against a rocky beach. Now, her face and hair reflected the table light perfectly, but from a distance, a far moon behind thin clouds, and her white dress hung from her shoulders to her feet in an unbroken line.
She walked a step closer, and the lunar glow grew stronger. Where Rick had aged, Lynn had improved to lustrousness. She smiled and pushed her hair away from her ears. “Do you want to see the rest?”
The door on the right led to a kitchen and storage room. The chrome surfaces seemed out of place in the stone chamber.
Rick opened a cabinet beside the stove, revealing a large tank. “Propane for cooking and heat, although I prefer the fireplaces. There’s solar panels outside and battery storage for electricity. We have to budget our use, I’m afraid.” He turned off the lights. “We’ve grown used to darkness or candles. Books by candlelight, ah, that is the way they were meant to be read.”
I sighed with content. The empty years after college already were fading. Books, a comfortable chair, and people to talk to about them.
Lynn excused herself when we entered the other hallway. Her fingers grazed my cheek. “It’s really good to see you again, Allan.” She entered the first room before closing a door behind her.
Rick grimaced, his emotions hard to discern in the hallway’s dim ceiling light. “She’s not totally . . . healthy. She tires, I’m afraid. We both do.”
I touched my cheek. The year after college I’d taken up with a goth girl who looked somewhat like Lynn, except with black lipstick and multiple piercings. The same slenderness. A passing resemblance in her eyes and hair, but the relationship was a failure. She didn’t read beyond Anne Rice. She felt lovemaking was too earthy, too mundane, below her ideas about death, decay and her fascination with vampires. I tried, but I couldn’t picture Lynn when I was with her. The few times she consented, it was an act of quid pro quo, a straight exchange of services. She liked me to drive to a cemetery where I could go down on her in the car’s backseat, the windows open so the cut grass and freshly turned dirt smells would fill her nose. She longed to couple on a fresh grave or in a tomb, but I was too squeamish. Her voice was wrong. She was not Lynn.
Rick opened a second door. Beyond him, the light didn’t show more of the hallway than a few feet.
“You said in your letter that you weren’t doing well. Something about ‘afflictions’?”
“Yes.” A switch clicked on. “This is the guest bedroom. I hope it’s comfortable enough for you.” A bedside light on a small stand showed a bed, a bureau and a chair. Like the front room, tapestries hung from the ceiling to cover the walls. “Afflicted, did I say that? I suppose I am.”
“You said maladies, too.” I shivered. Away from the fireplace, the air bit with cave cold. I wondered if I had packed a sweater. A thick, folded quilt covered the foot end of the bed.
Two other doors opened into bedrooms. The next revealed a bathroom, where both the toilet and the sink had been shaped directly from rock. A black curtain covered the shower. I didn’t realize the bathroom had a mirror until I stepped in front of the sink, where my own face startled me.
“How many square feet?” I still couldn’t see the hallway’s end.
“Two thousand, originally.” He sounded ironic. “Now, I’ve lost track.”
The heart of Rick’s house came at the last door. Another peaked cathedral arch like the front entrance waited, but this was unadorned, and our footsteps echoed when we entered. Rick turned on a single lamp on a reading table flanked by two soft-looking chairs. Its weak rays barely reached the walls, twenty feet away, and what they illuminated were books on shelves all the way around the room. A ladder attached to a rail fifteen feet above and mounted on wheels below provided access to the higher volumes. My breath caught in my throat. Books filled every space, all leather-bound, and rarities, no doubt. Their smell filled the air, parchment and ink and binding glues.
“My library.” Rick waved his hand. “It and this house have been my life’s work.”
The books’ spines felt cool across my palm. They were solidly packed from end to end. I saw no place to add a new acquisition.
Rick stood beside me. “Here’s an oddity.” He took a book from a shelf above his head. “Look at this one.”
Its brown cover had no title. I moved to the light, but when I tried to open it, the pages stuck at the bottom as if glued. “It’s damaged.” I held it out to him.
“No, not really. Look at the edge.”
I turned the book on end. The bottom pages didn’t look like paper at all. The surface was slick, and it clicked against my fingernail.
“Fossilization takes centuries, they say. Water carries dissolved minerals, and the minerals displace the organic material, cell by cell, so thousands of years later we can find complete trunks from ancient trees. Perfectly duplicated leaves in stone.” He took the book back. “We find the dinosaurs, even, revealed in rock’s slow triumph. Stone echoes.”
“But it is, as you say, a gradual process. You can’t be implying that your book is turning into a fossil.”
“It has been on that shelf for fourteen months. Some of the titles have become . . . permanent, a part of the wall and shelf. The shelves themselves.” He shrugged. “I’m not sad about it. There’s a poetry here. If the trend continues, my library will always exist. I only read the same one or two of them anymore anyway.” His tone became wistful. “Mostly I like to come in here and sit with the books around me.”
I shivered again, but not from the cold.
“You must see this, though, at the back of the library.”
He led me to a narrow exit surrounded by shelves, but it didn’t look like the other doors in the house, although its top led to a point too. The edges were rolled and smooth, more like flesh than stone, and a damp seep glistened on the surface. Rick handed me a flashlight. “The electrical lines don’t go this far.”
I had to rotate my shoulders to squeeze through the door, and the wet stone moistened my shirt. The flashlight cut a clear shaft in the darkness to reveal the library floor’s perfect plane broken into gentle corrugations, and instead of walls, long, natural stone columns connecting the floor to the ceiling. Tan stone replaced the black. “You broke into a cave?”
“I don’t think so. I only discovered this a few weeks ago. It wasn’t as large then.”
“What do you mean?” The light played across the ceiling, catching water drops in brilliant flashes dangling from stalactite teeth.
“I mean, this room is new. It didn’t exist when I finished the house.”
When I turned, the flashlight changed his face into a landscape of bright whites and shadows. “I don’t understand.”
He walked into the strange room, dragging his hands across the stone on either side, past me so that he stood near the middle. “This is the affliction I wrote you about. My malady. My evolving rock house.”
“Jesus, Rick.” A water drop released from the ceiling, caught the flashlight’s beam for a glittering instant, then plinked loudly like a glass bell into a shallow pool. “What can I do? Why did you ask me to come?”
He looked at me intently. “We ended on some awkwardness, I remember. I’ve always been sorry for that. It was my jealous soul.”
I couldn’t think of an adequate reply. A straightforward apology left me uncomfortable. “Are there bats, too?”
Rick shook his head.
He pointed his flashlight at his feet. The pool picked up the glare. It was if he stood on a radiant platform. “You have the imagination for it. I would have thought of you, eventually, but it was Lynn’s idea. She asked me to write.”
After much conversation, I grew too tired to talk. Most of the time he sat on his library chair, a book unopened in his lap. He’d lit a candle and turned out the lamp. I sat with him next to that flickering flame, reminiscing about the books we’d read in college. It made me happy to talk with him again, like those times when all that mattered were our thoughts and interpretations, when we considered ourselves a part of the literary elite, polishing off volume after volume, washing them down with wine and talk and long passing nights listening to Lynn read. I thought again of her leg draped over mine and the small contractions in her calf as her speech bathed us, of the intensity in her gaze moving from word to word. She kissed me goodnight the last time we read together, at the door of Rick’s room. It was the only time. The next day was when Rick grew so angry about the antique book.
Lynn had asked for me!
When I couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer, I excused myself to my room. It wasn’t until I was in bed that I looked at my watch. It was only 6:30 p.m. I turned the light out. The darkness descended.
The darkness descended. Nothing else describes it. Lying in bed, the quilt pulled to my chin, the utter blackness of a cave enveloped me. My eyes strained to see anything, vainly, waited to adjust to the darkness, but there was nothing to adjust to, and for the first time since I had entered Rick’s rock house, the weight of the mountain above me made its presence known. The quiet, too, was utter. No click of a clock. No whisper of air conditioning. No refrigerator buzz. Nothing except the rush of my own pulse in my ears, and soon I couldn’t hear that. I held my breath in the silence. Finally, I felt on the table beside the bed for my watch. The tiny green light exploded behind the time: 6:43. It winked out. I pressed it again just to see the hopeful green planet swimming in the unlit space. But when I pressed a third time, the light shone dimmer, and on the last press, the light barely came on before fading to nothing. My battery had died. Sadly, I put the watch back on the table. It felt cowardly to turn the table light on, and Rick had said they budgeted the electricity.
Once, when I was a child, I’d gone on a cave tour with my father. The guide stopped us in a curved hallway, and then he turned out the lights. He said, “This is what a blind man sees every day of his life.” Delighted at first, I wiggled my fingers in front of my face, but the guide kept the lights off for too long. I pressed against the wall, trying to grow small, too afraid to reach for my father. My heart stuttered. Then, something touched the back of my neck.
Later, they told me I had had a seizure.
I don’t know. I don’t remember that part, but it seemed to me, in the instant before all memory fled, something whispered in my ear, its talon on my neck, sharp nail against my skin, teeth clicking together, an airy whisper saying things I didn’t want to understand.
Now, in the room’s darkness, I lay still for a minute, an hour, a night. Who could guess how long? It seemed, bizarrely, as if the bed were slowly spinning. I tried counting breaths, and wondered if I would be able to tell the difference between being awake in the lightless room or asleep in a lightless dream.
Then, I did hear a noise, a slippery creep that could have been nothing, the sound of a single hair in my ear brushing against another, or the near undetectable rush of a lone drop of water running down the wall, but it repeated. Something was in my room. I became a child again as the steps approached my bed, singular, each, and loud now that came toward me, until they must be at my bed’s side. Then, a touch against the quilt. A silky swish of something brushing toward my face.
My heart, my chest, the muscles of my neck, tensed so I thought I would burst. My back arched slightly as my body clenched. I couldn’t scream or voluntarily move. Maybe I whimpered. I’m not proud of it, but the darkness like that, and the sound in the black. Then, a warm caress on my face, a warm breath of air against my lips. Lips on my lips. It took me a second to react, to realize the tongue seeking mine was real and human. I reached out from under the quilt to find an arm, and my fingers moved up to wrap in long hair. The lips pulled away. Cloth rustled. Soft clothes dropped to the floor. The quilt lifted to let in a cool draft, and the bed rocked. Knees bumped knees. The kiss again. I caressed her small breasts, slid down to the hip’s fine curve and pulled her on top of me.
In that total dark, only the baby seal feel of her skin on mine existed. Only her exhalations, warm and explosive against my neck. Only the taste of her mouth, the sweat on her face. Only her fertile smell. We could have been floating above a desert or marooned at sea or on an arena’s wide-open floor.
No experience in my life prepared me. Spontaneous rhythms. Untethered time. Her movements and mine, the pressures, the warmth, the scalding release, the shuddering finality were all perfect.
Some time later, her leg still draped over my stomach, her head on my shoulder and my hand on the small of her back, my breath at last slowed to normal. I broke the peace. “After all these years, why now?”
She kissed the underside of my chin, then moved her hand between her thigh and my stomach, down until she held me again, and soon, much sooner than I would have believed possible, I stirred. She levered herself back into position, supple as an eel, but this time my senses expanded beyond the languid cavort beneath the quilt, beyond my hands gliding from sweat-slick shoulder blades to curving back, beyond our consuming mouths, to the room’s stone walls, as if our gasping breath served as a bat’s sonar, sending signals back to me. I sensed the room and the halls and the moisture trapped in the rocks, and a liquid, mineral sentience around us, listening and urging, greedily absorbing, until, behind that, I felt a brooding overwhelming possessiveness. The walls of Rick’s rock house became quiveringly alive, dampness flushed, as if the mountain was reaching into the room, guiding us, huge limestone fingers holding us together, connecting us so firmly and deeply and singly that I thought we had become just one orgasmic being. For an instant I tried to slide out from under Lynn, from under the mountain, but the feeling was too strong, too good, too frightening, and the second time I came it was if my skull emptied out along with everything else.
When it ended. Lynn stroked my chest. Her damp hair stuck to the side of my face. She spoke. “You ask why now?” I listened to the empty room, just as sightless, but the mountain had retreated, and I felt we were alone. She said, “Nostalgia, maybe.” Her palm lay still on my heart. “I needed a change.” As quietly as she had entered, she left, navigating from the black room by feel or memory.
She’d said, “nostalgia,” but we’d never been lovers before. Nostalgia for what, I wondered. But I didn’t think about it long; I could still feel her skin against my hand, the touch of her lips under my chin. The sheets were clingy with our sweat.
I don’t know how long I was awake after that sleep before I realized it. What I noticed was a swelling of passing candlelight under my door, spreading long yellow fingers that crept across the floor before vanishing, and I felt as if I had slept for some time. I didn’t stir at first. The stately wash of light crossing the stone produced a strong déjà vu, like this wasn’t the first passing of the light, as if this was a routine for me.
Turning the light on, I got out of bed. Goosebumps prickled my legs as I pulled on my socks, but even with them, a cool draft I hadn’t noticed the night before, crossed my ankles. Fully dressed, wearing both my sweatshirts, I followed the draft to one of the tapestries. The heavy fabric pulled aside reluctantly, the bottom edge of the cloth no longer cloth at all, but solid rock. At the base of the wall, a ragged hole a foot across blew a steady breeze. The room light didn’t reveal anything past the first foot, but the small tunnel sloped down from the floor. Roomy for a rat; too small for a person.
My watch truly had died. I wondered about the time.
Rick sat in the kitchen with a candle next to his plate. “Nothing tastes good to me anymore.” He pushed a spoonful of eggs from one side to the other. “But I’m never hungry, anyway.” I took a chair on the other side. He looked at me for a long time. “My tastes have grown too sensitive, perhaps. All my senses feel acute.”
I asked him about the hole in my room, but he shrugged his shoulders once, as if to say there was nothing he could do about it.
He dropped his fork onto the table. “Do you remember how we used to talk about living in castles?”
I nodded. “Great stories in castles.”
“It’s the stone. The people are impermanent, but the stone lasts. That’s why they were given names. There were other features too.”
“People hiding behind the arras.”
I thought about the tapestries hanging in my room. With the lights out, a voyeur wouldn’t need to hide behind them. He could stand right beside my bed. “Poor Polonius,” I ventured, uncertainly.
“Noises, too. No conspiracy would be safe in a castle. The quietist breath around a corner, down the hall, behind a closed door, might echo to the king’s ears. The acoustics can be unpredictable.”
Maybe he had a point he was trying to make with this conversation, but with the memory of my and Lynn’s throaty gasps so fresh in my ear, I didn’t want to know. I left the table and opened a cupboard beside the sink. “Do you have any bread?”
“It’s gone bad. Canned goods or the refrigerator are all I have to offer.”
Lynn drifted into the kitchen, her white dress brushing against the floor. In the candlelight, I couldn’t tell if she looked at me or not as she sat. Rick took her hand, kissed her knuckles, “You’re wasting.”
“Aren’t we all?” She took a pinch of Rick’s eggs from his plate and put it in her mouth.
An orange in the bottom refrigerator drawer would do for a breakfast. “I’m chilled. I think I’ll eat by the fireplace.”
“We’ll join you.” Rick stood, still holding Lynn’s hand.
The fire had died, but soon a couple good sized logs were blazing, warming my shins and face. Ruddy light illuminated the room better than the table lamps. Medieval images decorated the tapestries: knights, castles, banquets, stylized dragons, horses, grain tied in vertical bundles, and the images continued onto the ceiling, etched deeply, but they were black on black, so only the contrast of the fire-lit surfaces to the unlit grooves revealed them at all.
Rick and Lynn took seats farther away. I wondered if the fire’s heat reached them. Lynn seemed paler than yesterday, if that were possible. Dark circles underscored her eyes. “Man’s relationship to stone goes way back.”
Rick nodded, as if this were a continued conversation. “I like Lot’s wife. That was a fitting reward.”
I ventured, “Didn’t she turn into a salt pillar?”
Lynn sniffed. “Too bad about that. The first rain must have dissolved her into a puddle. Tokien’s stone trolls. Rain and wind wouldn’t touch them.”
“Ah, yes, and Ozmandias, King of kings. Time consumed his kingdom, but his statue remained.”
Lynn closed her eyes. “The Easter Island heads. I love a good megalith.”
“They’re everywhere.” Rick pushed his chair closer to Lynn so he could put his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him, and his fingers wrapped around upper arm. It was not a brotherly embrace. “Stonehenge, Carnac, over 50,000 megaliths in Europe alone.”
A log popped loudly, shooting a spark onto the floor. It pulsed a deep heart red for a minute before winking out, and it made me sad. “What time is it?”
Rick laughed, as if I’d finally asked the right question. “It’s our time, of course.”
Lynn nodded. “Our time, yes. The stone age.”
With the firelight on their white faces, on Lynn’s white dress, they looked more like statuary than people.
“No, I mean time of day.”
Lynn sighed in disappointment. “Oh, I thought you meant . . .” She disentangled Rick’s arm from her shoulder. “We don’t open the door. Sun, moon, stars and clocks don’t matter anymore. That’s the beauty of Rock House. That and the books. I don’t know what season it is.” She yawned. “I woke too soon. I’m going back to bed.”
“It’s late spring.” Suddenly it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember if I’d slept only once in their house, of if I’d slept several times. It was disorienting. “Do you know now long I’ve been here?”
Lynn looked at me from the doorway, her face a pale wisp in the shadow. “You have always been here in a way.”
Rick stared into the fire until the top log burned through and fell in two pieces, scattering a dozen glowing coals across the stone. He started, as if out of deep thought. “Let’s go look at the tunnel you discovered.”
He picked up a flashlight in the kitchen and soon crouched on the floor behind my room’s tapestry. “I never visit in here. Really, with the way things are, I should inspect everyday.”
“What do you think is happening?”
He shined the light down the hole. “A thing of beauty, surely.”
I fell to my knees beside him. The light didn’t reach the tunnel’s end.
“I thought you said it was too small to go through.” Rick scrunched his shoulders together and squeezed part of his body into the hole. “I’ll bet I could skinny down this.”
My hand fit in the gap between his back and the top of the hole. “It was smaller earlier.”
He wiggled out, then turned so he rested against the wall. “I’ll stay here for a while. If I sit quietly long enough, I hear things. Maybe I’ll hear the mountain changing.” He smiled. “I’m feeling a bit tired anyway.”
Rick placed his hands on the flat on the cool floor and leaned his head back. I realized he wore the thinnest of shirts, the collar open to mid chest. How could he not be cold? His eyes were shut, and he looked nearly asleep already.
“I’ll peruse your library for a bit.”
I took a candle with me down the hall and through the library’s arched door. After some searching, I found a copy of an old favorite, Lud in the Mist. The chairs were as comfortable as they looked. The candle cast a bright light from the table. Soon I was deep into the book, reading each page by yellow glow, holding my finger under the next, ready to turn. From the other chamber, the gentle chime of water dripping into the pool provided a jeweled rhythm, steady and clean. From time to time, I caught myself nodding before reading on.
When the candle burnt down to the nub, I lit another, and after what seemed like no time at all, another one. Page after page turned weightlessly, and it seemed as if I’d been reading Lud in the Mist all my life, as if I’d reached the last page just to flip back to the beginning again. Somewhere in there, I slept, then woke to the library’s total blackness, but the weight of the book was comforting on my lap, and water dripping from stone onto stone didn’t sound intimidating at all. When I lit the next candle, I saw many stubs on the table top, their burnt wicks caught in the last smears of wax. I brought my hand before my face. My fingernails were longer than I ever remembered seeing them.
I put the book aside. My back cracked a dozen times when I stood, and both knees popped on their first steps. The candle cast a globe around me, wavering in Rock House’s drafts. A few clicks of the hallway switch on the moisture-coated wall were futile. A drip fell on my wrist. I held the candle high. On the ceiling above the light switch, a stalactite several inches long glistened; beyond that, droplets clung to the ceiling as far as the light reached. The floor felt as if it had a slight tilt to the left, and the corners that had looked so square and keenly hewed from the rock in my memory seemed rougher. The hallway didn’t look as much like a hallway now as it looked like a passageway.
The light switch in my room was no good either.
The tough parts of walking with a bare candle for illumination are that every little breath threatens to puff it out, and that the light shines directly back into the eyes. I cupped my free hand behind the flame to protect it and to shield myself. A breeze flowed from the hole in my wall, where the tapestry had flopped back into position, although the air pressure held it away from the wall. Rick’s legs stuck out from under it.
I tried to speak, but my voice croaked like a rusty pipe instead. I coughed, then tried again. “Have you heard the mountain changing?” The question didn’t have the feel of a joke.
Rick didn’t answer, and when I crouched beside him, my candle nearly guttered out. I put my hand on his leg. The hard surface cooled my hand. Already mourning, I pulled the tapestry away. Rick’s eyes were closed. His skin had taken on the same shade as the stone in his new library room, which meant, if anything, he had gained color. Reluctantly, I touched his face. As hard as the rock it had become, an incredibly detailed and expression-filled rendering of my old friend, his head leaning back, tilted just a touch to the side, as if he’d fallen asleep while sitting there. The wall behind him held him tight, and his legs had melded to the stone floor.
“Ah, Rick.” Suddenly exhausted, I sat at his feet, the heavy tapestry resting against my back. Soon, water drips soaked my sweatshirts. I could almost feel the hungry minerals looking for a way into my skin, to begin the molecule-by-molecule replacement. All I needed was to sit and let it happen. The thought of it was attractive, to sit, to gain respite, to put all things aside. This was the first of three temptations.
Beside him, the hole in the wall had widened to almost my height, peaked at the top like the library door. The tunnel sloped just as steeply, but now the candle illuminated a set of steps leading away. Rousing myself, I stood on the top stair. I had never felt an invitation more clearly. “Come down,” it said, and it would be so easy to slip from one step to the next, easing ever deeper into the earth, until the entrance behind would be long forgotten, and the journey in became all that there was. The voice called within me. I even took another step down, so that it seemed the rock trembled, while the limestone stairs became more slippery. In that sedimentary air, I smelled the fecundness of an ocean, the hidden underside of the bowl that held the sea, filled with seaweed and fish flesh. What waited at the bottom of that long descent? What lay at the root of the world? But I turned away from this second temptation to flee the room. The last I saw of Rick were his feet poking out from under the solid tapestry, never to move again.
Which brought me to Lynn’s room. I should have been thinking of how she would respond to her brother’s fate, but I wasn’t sound anymore. Rock house felt like a drowsy hallucination with all the logic of a daydream. I thought of warm afternoons on the summer porch, drifting to sleep with bees in the background, where my imagination lifted anchor and anything could happen, except here was no sun other than the tiny one balanced on my candle’s wick, and no warmth to relax into. Instead, I was eager to see her so I could share her thoughts on stone that changed and on a brother who had joined it. Only Lynn and Lynn’s voice offered a counter to the mountain’s offer. She, who walked undaunted in the perpetual night, might help me to understand.
And she waited for me, awake on her bed, lying on her back, a nearly translucent sheet covering her. She didn’t blink against the light. “I hoped you would come, Allan.” Her low voice lingered in the air. “I knew you would be on time.”
“What time, Lynn? In time for what?”
“To make it complete. Immortality is possible, but loneliness would be certain if you were not here.”
Confused, I moved next to her on the bed. Candlelight penetrated her sheet, revealing her without uncovering. Here, too, the ceiling dripped. A drop hit the sheet, soaked in. Her skin, where it touched the wet fabric, showed through.
“Be with me,” she said, “and I will stay unafraid.” Other than her eyes and mouth, she hadn’t moved. “Did I ever tell you who my favorite characters in all of literature are?”
I put my hand on her arm. It was reassuringly soft. “Aren’t you cold?”
“This is my temperature, now. I have . . . grown accustomed to it.”
Her lips were colorless with chill. I wrapped my palm around the side of her face. Her jaw moved under my hand. Her gaze shifted to meet mine. I smiled. “No, you never told me your favorite characters.”
Then I noticed her hair. The candlelight revealed so little, but when I shifted to caress her face, the light fell on her hair spread across her pillow. They were one. The bed, the pillow, her hair had turned to stone. The side of her face, where my fingers rested, shifted. Skin grew solid. Below the syncopated patter of water dripping everywhere, I could hear her body changing, like ice crackling in a cup.
“Medusa and her two sisters. The Gorgons were misunderstood.” Her breath grew short. “It’s not too late, Allan. Embrace me now. Be with me, and we will be eternal.”
The third temptation: a single move, and the intervening sheet would be gone. I could cover her, and my hardness would meet hers, forever. No more fleshy disappointments. No blind stumbling among the blind who didn’t recognize the world they lived in. No reading books that none understood or talked of or cared about. It could be all Lynn and stone and our glittering underground world. I could see it now: we’d become the castle walls that stand long after the defenders have left the ramparts, the darkling cave that held dragons, the tall rocks at Stonehenge, all everlasting. I could be like that too with Lynn, an unseen monument to literature and love. Might someone stumble upon us in a far future? What would they make of the lovers’ statue?
I could choose to be immortal and unchanging, or I could stay among the flawed, the human.
Stone crept across the side or her mouth. “Quick,” she whispered. Then an eye glazed over, and what once was liquid and living stilled. I tried to squeeze her hand, to communicate what I couldn’t say and what she couldn’t hear, now, but her hands had already gone rigid. My heart froze. I might as well have turned to stone for the little I did in Lynn’s last moments with me. At the end, her sheet crystallized. With a touch, it shattered, leaving Lynn on her bed, waiting for me to join her for all time. The empress of limestone.
Finally, the grief drove me out of her room and out of Rock House. The front door gave way stiffly, reluctantly. Outside, a hard winter sun glared off an unbroken snow field. My eyes burned and watered. I covered them for minutes before I could look upon the sunlit world. Across the snow, trees’ bare limbs rattled in the wind. Late spring had become winter.
I waded into the snow.
A year later, I looked for Rock House again. Underbrush choked the trail so I made a dozen bad turns, but when I came to the clearing, there was no door. Just rough stone, cool even on a hot, summer day. I rested my face against the hard surface. The rock wall would last as long as time, as long as Rick and Lynn.
In silence, the mountain neither praised nor condemned. It only stood, like those great immortal books that Rick and Lynn and I read late at night, night after night, intertwined on his bed. All those marvelous authors whose works became human monuments. They would survive forever. So, with my fragile flesh pressed against the unmoving stone, I couldn’t help feeling that hesitation stole my choice. My chance to last had passed.
Behind me, the sun heated the waving grass. Trees creaked and leaves brushed against one another in an unceasing whisper. All living, living until winter came and stilled them, living until new grass and leaves and trees replaced them, temporary, fleshy and weak. Pretty in the sad way a soap bubble buoyed in the wind is pretty, catching the light until it pops.
I trudged away from Rock House, deeper and deeper into the living land, empty of all hope.
If you can, some time, rest your hand on a castle wall. Touch a statue. Pick up a round rock from a river and put it in your pocket.
Only stone goes on.
This story originally appeared in Talebones.