The jackhammer rumbled and growled as it bit into the wall, spitting chips of brick and mortar. The stone pony watched in morbid fascination as the old hut was demolished. He felt the same fear and revulsion that a human might feel when watching an animal butchered. He wondered if it would hurt, if the jackhammer were ever to be used on him.
It never seemed to hurt as the weather slowly eroded him away. Then, Joe never complained about all the skin cells that humans seemed to constantly shed, yet was sore if anything cut even a little way into her skin. Maybe if would be the same for him. Maybe, if he was broken into a thousand bits of rubble, it would hurt at first, and then his soul pain would go away.
Or, maybe, every little piece of him would suffer from missing Joe.
From the outside, studying the stone pony, you might have thought you were gazing at an ordinary rock. To be sure, it was a pretty rock; a frosted crystal with fairy sparkles where the light hit flaws and bubbles in the stone. Its general shape was that of a little horse resting in the ground, its legs tucked up under it and its nose reaching down to rub its knees. The faint suggestion of a horn decorated its forehead.
You might notice that there wasn’t another stone like it in the vicinity, which shouldn’t be too surprising, for the stone pony had travelled from the other side of the world to rest at this spot.
Yes, from the outside, the stone pony was ordinary enough. But, on the inside…
Once upon a time, the stone pony had been considered an object of magic and power. The idea had come about for all the wrong reasons, but the general concept was correct. The stone had developed a sense of self, and had collected a great store of wisdom, and was possessed by an all-compassing curiosity. He did not have the desire, or the ability, to grant prayers or wishes. By the bye, the stone pony had no gender, but it is easier to talk about the stone entity as a “he”, rather than an “it”. And it sounds more polite.
He watched as part of the wall came down with a loud, reverberating crunch. The other walls had been wooden, and their remains were already cleared away. The stone pony was horrified at how quickly the brick wall was coming down…after all, it had been standing in the field across the way for over fifty years. The jackhammer was tearing it down in an afternoon. The jackhammer was a terror, a force greater than the fury of a storm.
Joe’s company would have soothed him. But the stone pony knew, with a cold certainty deep inside, that he would never see Joe again. His very first human friend had deserted him forever.
Even Connor would have been a comfort. Usually, Connor only ever came to see him with Joe. He was good company for Joe, and it had been the conversations between Connor and Joe that had taught the stone pony to understand human speech.
More bricks came crashing down. The jackhammer stopped. A beige utility truck was backed up to the rubble, and the men loaded the ruined stonework into the tray. Half the wall was gone by now. What was left looked like the ruins of war, a jagged edge that cut painfully against the sky.
Oh, how he longed for Joe! He was so forlorn, even Connor’s great lump of a dog would be welcome company, although the wretched animal did tend to urinate on him.
Suddenly, there was a vibration in the soil, footsteps coming up behind him. If the stone pony had gloried in a heart; it would have leapt for joy. The steps slowed as they drew closer, as if the person making the sounds was carrying a heavy burden.
Connor walked up to a rustic seat that had been built beside the rock. He plopped down, as if all his bones had gone soft. He just sat there quietly, looking at the sky.
The stone pony longed to question him about Joe. Humans didn’t have a natural gift for communication. Even among their own kind, they spoke a multitude of languages. The stone pony could communicate with most creatures…all except the humans. Never had he felt this lack so strongly.
Connor was silent for a very long time. The men finished clearing up the bits of ruined wall, drove off in the utility and then came back with the tray emptied, and still Connor just sat, staring into the clouds. He didn’t even seem to notice when the jackhammer started up again.
It wasn’t until sunset, after the men had gone for the day, when Connor finally stirred. He made a choking sound, and collapsed into a foetal position. He started to wail like a baby, and not a big boy of thirteen. It was then that the stone pony knew the truth. Brave, bright, laughing Joe really had left them both for good.
It was then the stone pony realised he must have grown a heart. It hurt so much; his heart had to be breaking.
Once there was a chuckling, bubbling elf of a river. It wasn’t the biggest or most impressive waterway, but it had deep pools interspersed with foaming, sparkling rapids. In one of these pools, a green mystery of dappled sunlight and sudden ripples, there lived a salmon.
Now, most salmon rush up a river to mate and die. This salmon was too wise for that. She had chosen to follow the path of knowledge, going against her instincts and the traditions of her race, rather than fight her way against the current of the river. She had lived many years in the pond beneath the hazel trees
At the bottom of the pond was a large, crystalline stone. Many years of river silt had flowed against this stone, plucking and polishing, so that it had no sharp edges. Large grooves and dimples had been worn into its structure. The salmon liked to hide in its shadow.
Slowly, as slow as the movement of a mountain, the salmon passed some of its power to the rock. She didn’t do it deliberately. How was she to know the potential of the rock? It must have been a special stone to start with.
It was a fine spring day, when the salmon realised she was not alone in the shadow of the stone. She could sense the presence of another. Who would dare? She had been queen of her pool for so long, no other creature would be so foolish to invade her territory.
Hunting high and low, the salmon found no intruder. Yet, she knew she was not alone. Every one of her senses was a buzz. The only other things in the pool were the weeds and the stone. One of them must be the culprit. So she sent her inner eye into the stone, seeking an answer. There, she could sense vague, questing thoughts.
The stone was alive!
How could that be!
The salmon was wise. She was wise enough to know that it is usually only organic creatures that develop the power of thought. Something strange and wonderful had to be happening, for stone to gain consciousness.
The stone tried to respond to the salmon. It had no concept of language, or communication; it was simply giving back in kind what it was receiving. The salmon gained an impression of herself, a sleek form glimmering in the darker gleam of the water. It was accompanied by a strong feeling of awe. The stone thought she was its god.
A sense of humour is not usually apart of the emotional make-up of a fish, but the salmon was no ordinary fish. She laughed. And the stone tried to laugh too. At first, it didn’t know why it laughed; it just echoed the salmon. Then, as the pleasure of its action filled it, the stone laughed for no reason, other than it was happy.
The salmon spent the next few years guiding the stone to full consciousness. He became the child of her heart. As his mind grew, he developed a strong curiosity for knowledge, a hunger to know what went on beyond the boundaries of the pond. After all, as a stone, he would never be able to travel and see anything for himself.
So, the salmon told him stories of all the places she had been. For a part of their lives, salmon are an ocean-going fish. The stone’s salmon had travelled more extensively than any other sea creature, except for the whales, and had witnessed many strange and fantastic sights. Her experiences were a major source of interest for the stone.
As well, she taught him all about the rhythm of the tides, the intricate social structure of a coral reef, the complexities of the prey/predator relationship, and the magical life-force of the plankton. All her knowledge she paraded for his benefit, and benefit from it he did.
In return, he tried to convey to her the mysteries that occur beneath the land and seas, deep in the ground where the rock flows like a liquid. Some of it she could understand, as the patterns of current and pressure do not vary so much between water and lava. But some of it was beyond her ken…she could never fathom the patterns of the crystals and other such data.
He knew that fault was more his, rather than the salmon’s. He understood all the information she passed on to him. She was the better teacher. Some of his memories of his existence before he came to be in the pool were unclear, and he relied on what felt right.
The one thing that confounded them both was how did the stone learn to think? The salmon tested every other rock in her pool, down to the smallest pebbles, and none of them shared her rock’s abilities. Not even the bits of stone that had obviously once been part of her great milky crystal showed any tendency to become conscious. Nor had the salmon ever come across such a miracle in all her travels.
The salmon’s stone was unique.
The stone and the salmon shared many happy years together. The salmon had never planned on having any offspring, and was gratified to have the stone as a foster child. She was a caring and responsible parent, and even if her son wasn’t very active physically, he was mentally agile.
Then, one year, there was terrible drought. The river ceased to run, and became a string of stagnant pools, pools that grew smaller and shallower every day.
The salmon wasn’t worried. Her pool was one of the largest, and was deep enough to retain water through even this drought. Still, the water was no longer sweet, and she longed for the dry weather to break.
The pool grew shallow, so that the stone was revealed to the air for the first time in his memory. He had been created deep in the earth, and the river had eroded the surrounding rock away, while still covering him with a deep layer of water. He was most interested in the new world he could see, the riverbank and the trees and the sky. Before, they had only been ripples on the surface of the water.
People started coming to the pool, as the salmon’s pool was one of the few places left with reasonable quality of water. The stone was easily visible, glowing in the sunlight. They were quite taken by the resemblance of the stone to a pony.
These were the last years in the age of Epona, the horse goddess. Christianity was sweeping the land, but pockets of the old religions still lingered on. You could still find a Druid, or a hedge wizard, or a shaman, if you so desired such.
Unknown to the stone and the salmon, the people told a shaman of the strange crystal in the pool. He came down to the pool, wading into the deep water to see this amazing stone. As soon as caught sight of it, he knew it was a sacred relic to his goddess. It was a sign from her, a token that she would forgive her people and bring the rains.
The shaman approached the rock with reverence. Then, sensing the presence of the salmon, he stopped. As her great intellect made itself known to him, the shaman spoke to her. “Great one, princess amongst fishes, I have a boon to ask of you. May I take the white-coloured stone that sits in this pool?”
“You don’t know what you ask,” said the salmon. She was startled by the power she sensed in the shaman’s presence, and by the fact he could speak with her. Most humans lacked the ability to communicate with nature. He had sensed the uniqueness of the stone.
“Great one, we are in dire need of this stone. I am certain it contains great magic,” pleaded the shaman. “With the help of this stone, I believe I can break the drought.”
The salmon was even more surprised and confused by these statements. The drought was a terrible disaster, and she knew many plants, animals and humans had died. And many more would die, if it didn’t break soon.
“I do not have the responsibility of this decision. You must ask the stone,” she said.
It was the shaman’s turn to be surprised. “I can talk with the stone?”
The old man turned to the crystal, and found it was true! Even more verification the stone was a gift from the goddess.
The stone was unable to talk with the human in words, as such, but there was an exchange of emotions and ideas. An agreement was made between them. Even a rock could see the sadness and despair the drought was spreading.
The shaman promised the salmon that her stone would be placed in a spot suitable to his status as an altar to Epona.
Using ropes and peeled logs as a ramp, the shaman had the people drag the stone from the pool. The crystal was a heavy, awkward burden, slippery with mud and algae, but the villagers managed to wrestle him out and onto the riverbank. Then, they used a rough sled of branches to drag him through the woods, to his new position under a sacred oak.
A dedication ceremony took place at once. The stone pony was wreathed in wilted greenery, as there were no flowers left. Food was placed around him, as offerings to the goddess. Every day, more and more tokens were given over to Epona, with prayers and pleading. And, strangely enough, the drought broke within that week.
The stone didn’t really understand what was going on … but the salmon knew the truth. She would never see her stone again. The humans had claimed him.
The salmon survived the drought. And the next time her kinfolk were flocking up the river to the breeding shallows, she went with them.
Finding the Foothills
It was a wonderful afternoon. The sun was not too hot, there was a fresh breeze blowing, and the grass had just been mowed, so that the delicious fragrance of green things filled the air. The sky was an infinite bowl of blue enamel.
Joe was lying on her back at the foot of the stone pony, ignoring the comfort of the seat; as with most adolescents, she was rebelling against the constraints of furniture … as well as everything else that seemed too rigid. She had one leg propped over the back of the pony in a companionable manner, as she watched patterns in the clouds. Her mind was far away, designing a plane trip that would follow the band of sunset around the world.
A butter-fat and butter-yellow Labrador dog lumbered up the hill, and plopped down onto the grass beside her. His expression was one of exhaustion, as if the climb had been too much for him. Connor, who was Joe’s best friend in the entire world, followed the dog up the hill, and sat down beside Joe on the grass. “I thought I might find you up here,” he said. “You just about live up here. How did it go at the doctor’s?”
“It was a bit weird, really,” answered Joe.
She smiled up at him. To an interested observer, it might be noted that her face was bright and lively, even though she despised her freckled skin and red hair. At this moment, she was yet to grow into her limbs and features, and appeared to be an unfinished construction of oversized bits mixed in with normal kid-sized parts.
Joe’s fervent wish was to look like Connor, with his olive-smooth skin, dusk-dark hair and sky-blue eyes. Even the lopsided dimple in the left-hand corner of his smile was to be envied. He was far too pretty for a boy, and she considered herself very plain for a girl … so Joe imagined they balanced each other out.
“What do you mean? How weird?” asked Connor.
Joe sat up and considered the point. “Well,” she said, “The doctor wanted to do a whole lot more tests than I expected. You know how I bruise easily? And how I’ve been feeling so washed out? He thinks it could be one of a few things. Part of the problem is that I’m anaemic.”
“It means I’ve got something wrong with my blood. The doctor talked to Mum more than me. He even sent me out of the room for a while. He did say that he would ring Mum later with the rest of my results.” Joe wrinkled her nose in resentment. “I don’t think that’s fair. I’m the one who’s sick.”
Connor nodded in agreement. Grown-ups were like that, telling you how adult you were when they wanted you to do something, and then treating you like a kid the rest of the time. Still, Joe’s mum wasn’t a bad sort; she was usually pretty up front.
“Did your mum tell you anything?” he asked, rubbing the Labrador’s ears. The dog sighed in contentment, and drifted off into a doze.
“No, but she seemed pretty upset. You don’t think I’m going to die, or anything…do you?”
“Of course not! Only old people die.”
Back down the hill, hidden behind a bank of oleander trees, was Joe’s home. It was an old farmhouse, left over from when Joe’s family had owned the biggest property in the district. The house was too big, and was slowly falling to pieces from neglect, but it still kept the rain out. Joe lived there with her mother, and her mother’s father, Tarz.
Her mother and Tarz were discussing Joe’s illness, while having a cup of tea in the kitchen.
“So, it’s leukaemia,” said Tarz, his voice shaky. “What are her chances?”
Joe’s mum raised her head from the table, where she had been resting it while she wept. “About half-and-half. The doctor will know more after some extra tests. Oh, I can’t believe this is happening! I don’t know how I can cope.” Normally a pretty, chubby woman with smiling eyes, Elaine looked like she had aged fifteen years in an afternoon. “What will I do, if my only baby leaves me?”
“You have to be tough. You can’t get negative, as you’ll end up passing those feelings on to her. She’s never been one to let anything knock her down. This won’t either.”
“You’re right, I know. But Dad, after Bill running off, I’m finding it harder and harder to stay on top of it all. And now this!”
“Hah! Bill’s going was a blessing, not a curse. What help would he be now, primping and preening in his own importance. Joe needs us, the ones that really love her. Between us, we’ll see it through.”
Tarz was not a handsome man. He had a long, grizzled beard to match his long, grizzled hair, and a weather-beaten mug. But to his daughter, he looked like an old Viking hero, as he brought her comfort with his words.
Joe and Connor had fallen into a discussion on death. It was the sort of morbid subject that could amuse them for hours. The stone pony was listening in on their discussion, and was entertained. A good debate, always in fun, had taught him a great deal about the workings of the girl child’s mind. Joe had a quicksilver intelligence that glittered and flowed into the pit of any topic of interest
Joe had spent several years going to Sunday School, and had a fair idea of what heaven and hell entailed. And, as a voracious reader, she had a hazy grasp of what other religions had to say on the subject of an afterlife. This was in direct contrast to Connor, whose father was a chemist for an agricultural fertiliser firm, and had informed his son that life was a process. Connor believed your soul or conscious was just a side effect of the workings of the brain.
The stone pony found all this enlightening. Even after all his centuries of existence, he did not know what happened when you die. And as a stone, there was little chance of him finding out for eons. He had spent some time thinking through the topic, but had come to no firm conclusions of his own.
Joe and Connor didn’t finish up their discussion until the sun started to sink behind the hills. It had been a glorious debate, under the amphitheatre of the open sky.
The children spent most of their free time at the rustic seat, as it was the Joe’s favourite spot in the entire world. She loved the view, and the fresh green smell, and the feeling of contentment the place radiated. It was with some reluctance that she wandered down the hill to her dinner. Connor and his dog rushed off in the direction of his own house.
The stone pony was sorry to see them go. Well, he was sorry to see the children go; he wasn’t really fond of the Labrador and its unhygienic habits. It could be a nuisance, the great, widdling dolt.
Elaine and Tarz were waiting for Joe when she walked in the door. One look at her mother’s eyes, and Joe knew that the doctor’s news was not good. She went white to the lips.
Tarz walked over and folded the girl in his arms. She was the only child of his only child, and he loved her more than life itself. It seemed unfair, that such a baby was going to suffer such a terrible disease, when an old sinner like himself was as healthy as a world-beating aerobics instructor.
“As you’ve guessed, the doctor hss rung us. You’re sicker than we thought,” said Tarz quietly. Joe buried her face into the wiry tangle of his beard, suddenly feeling very afraid. Maybe she shouldn’t have spent the afternoon joking about death.
“It looks like you have leukaemia,” her mother sobbed, “We’re seeing the doctor in the morning. Oh, Joe! I’m so sorry!” Elaine tried to stop crying, and managed to get some control of her emotions. She went to her father and daughter, and joined in with the hug.
Tarz smiled down at his little family. “Don’t you both worry. We will get through this together. It will turn out all right in the end.”
The stone pony missed his mentor, the salmon, but his new position opened up such possibilities. He had never been so completely free of the restraints of earth and water, and his curiosity about the forest consumed him. It was delightful to experience seasons. He had never really noticed the changing patterns of the year; he had been sheltered from the weather for most of his existence. Now, he could watch as the woods rushed through its various transformations. It was hard to decide which season he liked best; they each had their own attractions.
For the remaining few years of his life, the shaman was the stone’s friend. He tried to explain to the stone about the humans, about Epona the Horse Goddess and the part the stone pony played within the tenets of this religion. The stone couldn’t really understand all the fuss. He couldn’t recall ever meeting with such an entity as Epona, but he was kind enough to keep this from the old man.
When the old man died, there was no apprentice shaman to replace him. The people had to muddle along in their beliefs as best they could. The stone pony didn’t really notice when the shaman stopped coming, as he had so much more to study and understand.
As mentioned, the stone pony had been placed under an oak. The oak was an older entity then even the salmon. It had stood for centuries, thinking deep thoughts, listening to the secrets of the forest, and it has grown very wise. The shaman had sensed this, and had treated the oak as an altar to Epona. The villagers left small gifts, ribbons or tokens tucked into its branches, either begging for a favour or in gratitude for a blessing.
The stone had been placed directly under the protection of its branches. He still received his share of garlands draped around his neck, and little offerings of food left at his base. He enjoyed the presence of the human beings, strange as their actions were, for they were always doing something novel. The best humans were the little ones, for they often hugged and kissed him, and he found these caresses surprisingly pleasant.
The oak welcomed the stone’s presence. The oak was not lonely, as many animals and birds inhabited its branches, but the stone had an intellect similar to its own. Curiosity was a part of its personality, and the stone had a whole store of knowledge that the oak had never guessed at. They enjoyed sharing and exchanging information, and built a strong friendship.
One spring, a little yellow-brown lizard took residence under the stone pony. She was a pretty thing, as slender as a willow leaf, and as graceful and swift as sun ripples on the water. She started out as something of a houseguest, one that never got around to leaving, but was too charming to be asked to leave.
This was a lizard with delusions of grandeur. She thought she was a dragon. She spent a great deal of her time prowling through the grasses, hunting, and the rest of the time she spent sunning herself on the stone pony’s back, dreaming of fighting knights and terrorising nations.
As well, the littlest dragon liked to listen to the conversations between the oak and the stone. She didn’t understand half of what was spoken, but she put on airs as if she were privy to the secrets of the world. All the while the oak was teaching the stone, about the magic of growing things and the cycle of the seasons, the lizard sat and sunned.
Sometimes, the lizard returned the favour, and would entertain both the crystal rock and the massive oak with recollections of her fancies. Her stories of her imagined adventures were full of excitement, and she was always the central heroine in every tale. For such a tiny reptile, she had an enormous imagination.
The stone pony was content. It had the companionship of the oak and the pompous, but enchanting, lizard. There were always other animals wandering by, such as deer, badgers, wolves, and foxes. He loved to see the woods display their beauty. He particularly delighted in the spring, when the forest was like a great pulsing heart, the new growth thrusting towards the sun. He even liked the humans and their bizarre carry-ons.
He didn’t realise his importance to the villagers. A local legend had grown around the incident of the drought breaking within a week of dredging up the stone pony. Due to this coincidence, he was considered a very powerful totem. Christianity had started to drift into the ken of the village people, but it as yet hadn’t captured their beliefs, not as Epona still did.
The various festivals of the people nearly always involved the oak and the stone. A great deal of magic was invoked in his presence. Even if he knew what all the fuss was about, he wouldn’t have cared. He was solid in structure, and solid, sensible and serious by nature.
Then, his happy little world was shaken.
It was late in the summer. It had been a remarkably hot day, and the stone was still warm well after the sun had gone down. The lizard was taking advantage of the unseasonable heat, and had not hidden herself away for the night. She was dozing, soaking up the stone’s warmth, and letting the flow of conversation drift over her like a blanket.
The dusk was alive with wings. Most of the smaller birds were settling down for the night, except for two or three swallows. They were spinning and dancing through the air as if they needed not to go to sleep. Moths and other nocturnal insects were beginning to stir. The first of the bats were darting through the woods to hunt the pretty night-wings.
Then, in the dusk came the thrum of heavy flapping, a signal that a bigger creature than moth or bat was on the hunt. The lizard, dreaming grand and heroic visions, did not heed the danger those wing beats might advertise.
There was a sudden flurry of movement under the branches of the oak. There was a flash of moon-pearled feathers, a desperate sigh, and the littlest dragon was gone.
An owl had taken her.
“Hey Mum. You’ve got a special letter from the council,” called out Joe, as she walked in from the garden. She handed a couple of envelopes to her mother.
“How odd,” said Elaine, as she opened the letter, a big, buff job with an impressive multi-coloured insignia in the top, left-hand corner. Inside was a sheet of paper with surprisingly few paragraphs. “It’s not much, really,” she muttered, “The council are changing our rates designation from rural to residential ‘B’. We should have a rates hike, but as we are listed as an historical landmark, they are giving us a concession equivalent to the hike. Can’t see the point, seems like a lot of running to stay in the same place.”
“When they changed the rates type for the Mackenzie farm, it got cut up into little house blocks,” pointed out Joe. “I’d hate for that to happen to us, or the land around the farm. Can we complain, or something?”
Elaine read through the letter again. “Well, it says here that we can lodge a protest to the change. But we wouldn’t have any way of protesting the change around our property. The land could be sold tomorrow, and made into to town houses. What a shame!” This new tragedy could only touch Elaine lightly. What was this compared to her husband’s betrayal of their love, and the constant worry of Joe’s leukaemia.
“It’s more than a shame! Mum, this is terrible!” said Joe, and she burst into tears. She was just hitting puberty, and had become very emotional. Very emotional. Sometimes, her mood changes were too fast for even her to follow them.
She found it hard to stay on an even keel, when she felt like she was white-water rafting a torrent of percolating hormones. Over and above the usual adolescent woes, she was trying hard to be brave and hide most of her anger and distress at having leukaemia. This was an unexpected shock. It would tear at her like razor wire if her beloved fields became dingy, little suburbs.
Joe went to Tarz for comfort and advice. It wasn’t that she didn’t think her mum could help, but Joe knew her mum had enough on her plate worrying about the divorce and the family’s finances and Joe’s disease. Elaine was strung out, and didn’t need any more stress.
Tarz had a wealth of encouragement to bring to battle against the problem. Firstly, he wrote the letter protesting the change of rates designation, as set out in the guidelines in the council’s missive. Then, he helped Joe plan a petition. After all, Joe wasn’t old enough to vote, so her lone voice raised in anger wouldn’t count for anything, but an impressive list of names that shared her grievance would carry weight.
So, that next weekend, Joe and Connor walked around the town centre collecting signatures for her petition. By Saturday afternoon, Joe felt sick and weak in the body, but strong in spirit. Lots of people had been happy to sign, and others had promised to write letters to the council.
Sundays usually saw Joe helping Tarz and her mum run a craft stall at the Flea Market. This was one of their main forms of income, as Tarz was a gifted woodworker, and Elaine had a real flair for craftwork. Not so on this Sunday, for Joe spent the day canvassing more signatures for the petition. As she was still tired from the day before, she set up a desk near the main entrance, so that most visitors to the markets had to pass her on the way in. She managed to double her list of names.
It was hard to ignore her. As her illness had progressed, Joe had grown very thin and pale. It was obvious to the most casual glance that she was a very sick girl. Even the most callous or apathetic individual felt some pity when confronted by her pallid, earnest face, and signed as requested.
Monday, Joe was too weak to go to school. At this point, Elaine felt she should take control of the situation.
“Darling,” she said hesitantly, settling down on the edge of her daughter’s bed, “I think you should finish up with your petition. You have lots of signatures. And it’s made you worse, all this running around. You can’t risk getting any sicker…you need all your strength to fight as it is.”
“Don’t ask me to stop, Mum. I really need to do this. What’s the use of getting better, if the world gets too messed up to live in?”
“Can’t you fix it after you get better?” asked Elaine. Her eyes were fixed on her daughter’s hands, so terribly waxy and bony. Joe had never been a chubby child at any stage of her development, but this thinness was painful for a mother to witness. Elaine would have given anything for her daughter to be well; the words may sound trite and clichéd, but that doesn’t stop them from being very true. She feared the petition was using up Joe’s meagre reserves, and her fear was icy lead in her entrails.
“An ounce of prevention is better than a ton of cure, as you are always telling me. It’s a bit hard to put the fields back, once people have built houses and are living in them,” explained Joe, “But I promise to try and take things easier. I’ll get Connor to do the running around, if you like. He’s just as keen to prevent the council ruining our fields as I am.”
“Darling, I can help too. I do want to save this little piece of land round the farm, and not just for your sake. Remember that I grew up here too. Please don’t be afraid to ask me.”
Joe smiled warmly, and a tiny stain of pink flushed her fingertips. “Oh, Mum. Having your help would be lovely.”
Elaine saw a rainbow of hope in that faint, rosy blush.
Joe didn’t get the chance to collect any more signatures. Her disease had flared up, the white blood cells rampaging through her system like Huns tearing through a city. Her doctors put her on chemotherapy. They hoped to give her a bone marrow transplant, but a suitable donor wasn’t easy to find; none of her immediate family was a match.
So, Connor, Tarz and Elaine went on the offensive for her. Surprisingly enough, it turned out that Connor had a real flare for organising this sort of thing. He had school friends help him collect signatures. He wrote letters to newspapers, radio stations and television stations, trying to drum up interest in Joe’s cause. The petition was gaining momentum.
Then, it came to the attention of Joe’s father that a quick buck could be made, if the farm was listed as Residential ‘B’, and sold to developers.
He came to visit Joe and Elaine.
Since the discovery of her leukaemia, he had only been to see Joe once. Bill was trying to cut all ties with his ex-wife and his child, as he didn’t like being reminded of his responsibilities towards them. He wanted to be free to live the lifestyle of a fun-loving bachelor, instead of facing a staid middle age and the grind of supporting a family. Any financial support was provided grudgingly, and only because he had to under the legal system…it was money he would rather be spending for his own benefit and entertainment.
Joe was doing her homework at the kitchen table, when Bill came in and sat down with his daughter. Seeing the two of them together, it was easy to pick which parent had given Joe her looks. Bill was a short, lean man, and his still thick hair was the exact same shade of red as Joe’s tangled braids. But the girl’s eyes were all from her mother, and Bill was uncomfortably reminded of this as she gazed at him resentfully. It put him on the defensive, right from the start.
“I want you to give up on this campaign, Jocelyn,” demanded Bill. Joe’s dad was the only person who refused to call her by her chosen name. He knew she hated to be called Jocelyn or Josie, but he felt silly calling his daughter by a boy’s handle. It was pandering to the child, to let her dictate how an adult referred to her.
“Whatever are you talking about, William?” replied Joe. Two could play at that game.
Her father preferred Bill to William, and he would have liked it better if Joe would call him ‘Dad’. But Joe had made it very clear; her father had given up the right to be called by a family title when he had deserted his family. To Bill, this was more evidence of the stubbornness that should have been trained out of her.
“I want you to stop interfering with the council’s plan for this area,” he snarled, and then tried to calm down. “Can’t you see? It could mean a lot of money to you and your mother if the land changed to Residential. It is money that could help pay for the costs of your medical treatment.”
“And of course, there’s nothing in it for you,” said Joe bitterly.
The stone pony and the oak were shocked and saddened by their friend’s death. They had thought her safe; protected by the respect the general population of the forest accorded them.
Never again would the lizard dream her grandiose dreams.
The stone pony was angry at the owl. In fact, he blamed all owls for the destruction of his lizard. Even though he had learnt a great deal about the cycle of life and death, he could not reconcile himself to this loss. He missed the little reptile’s fancies, and her gentle companionship.
The oak did not mourn the lizard as much as the stone pony. The tree had outlived many friends, and lizards usually do not survive the winter. But the stone’s response troubled it. The oak wondered how it could comfort him.
The owl clan of the forest had not realised the significance of the lizard to the venerable oak and the mystic crystal. Rumours and whisperings began to filter back to them, and the owls were afraid. They did not expect a punishment from the tree and the stone, but they could be ostracised by the rest of the denizens in the wood. The prey might become harder to find, nesting sites might disappear, and other animals could harass them when their eyes were weakened by the sun.
They had to make some kind of restitution, before the situation escalated and got out of hand.
A representative of the clan landed in the oak about a week after the littlest dragon’s demise. He was one of the oldest and wisest of his kind, a bark-coloured individual with great tufts of feathers above his eyes. He chose to perch on a low branch, not too far from the stone pony.
“I have come to apologise for an unfortunate occurrence,” muttered the owl. “One of our number killed a friend of you both, I believe. If this is so, what can we, the owl clan, offer in way of compensation?”
“How can you compensate for the loss of a friend?” demanded the stone pony.
The owl closed his eyes to express his sympathy. “Truly, there is no redress for the loss of a friend. But we can try to make it up to you both. The owl that killed your friend can be exiled from the clan. We could try to find you a replacement companion; though I imagine that you would resent any replacement we could supply you. We could offer you some kind of payment, in anything you might require. What would you ask of us?”
The stone pony remained silent. The oak was the first to answer. “I was not as injured as the crystal,” it said, “But I am still hurt by the reptile’s death. I would not ask for the banishment of the offending owl, as it was only hunting to survive and did not kill out of malice, but I would ask that no further hunting takes place in the confines of my clearing.”
“As you wish,” said the owl.
“I would also like to learn more about your clan, if that is allowed.”
The owl blinked a few times, and hooted, “I can’t see why you shouldn’t have access to our lore. It isn’t kept in secret, to my knowledge. As I have been sent to negotiate your compensation, and as I can see no reason why I can’t teach you the lore, I will share my own teachings with you. Is this what you both desire?”
The oak waited for the stone pony to reply. The rock was interested, in spite of himself, and the oak knew of his all-encompassing curiosity.
“Yes,” said the stone pony, mildly resentful of the oak’s manipulations.
And so the owl came to visit the oak and stone every night, after he had finished feeding. Sometimes he came alone, and sometime he was accompanied by a barn owl, a ghostly creature with a perpetually surprised expression. The owls taught of the patterns of migration, of the relationship between prey and predator, and of the freedom of flight and wing.
The oak was never fully awake at night, so the stone pony received the greater benefit of the owl clan’s lore. Immovable, it was a revelation to discover how complex the mechanics of flight really were. He hadn’t realised how important the shape of a feather was in creating lift, or how the loss of one wing feather could disable a bird. He wondered what it was like to be under an unbroken stretch of sky, as he had never seen the sky except through water or tree branches.
He grew to like his owl teachers, and learnt to forgive them for the death of the littlest dragon. The stone pony grew reconciled to his loss, as he gained so much in return. But he never forgot his little friend.
The Steep Cliffs
It was only a matter of time.
The leukaemia was winning, though Joe fought valiantly for her life. The disease had robbed her of her strength, her hair, and her youth. Tarz had bought her several sets of pretty sarongs, as he felt she needed some sort of feminine boost, and she wore them to the exclusion of anything else. Defiantly, she added a jangle of bracelets, and kept her veiled head high whenever she went out in public.
Connor was now in full control of her campaign. She did her best to support it, but her limited resources prevented her from any physical efforts. She wrote a lot of letters, and kept a supervisory role.
The campaign was in full swing. Most of the town was aware of Joe’s petition, and the local media were giving it fair coverage. Sadly, Joe knew her illness generated some of the public interest, but she was enough of a realist to see the advantages in the situation.
The rest of her days were spent up at the stone pony seat. She no longer had the strength to put in a full day at school.
Connor joined her there most afternoons, for the hour or so around sunset. With time running out, he wanted be with Joe as much as he could manage.
It was a weird and beautiful spring day. There was a light wind blowing, a fragrant zephyr that was full of the scent of grass and flowers. Every single chrysalis had hatched that day, and the air was alive with butterflies. The insects let the breeze blow them where it would, and the butterflies danced in couples or groups of three, spinning around their partners in a dizzy dance. There were black and brown ones, gold and tan ones, and white ones splotched with every colour imaginable. Tiny yellow ones fluttered near the ground, sometimes congregating in groups to gossip on the grass stems.
Joe was entranced. She had never seen such a collection of butterflies in her life, and nothing could have lured her away from the hilltop.
When Connor and his dog joined her, most of the insects had gone. Still, there were enough remaining to give the boy some idea of what the butterfly dance had been like.
“You know, butterflies don’t live for very long,” said Joe. “Some types only live long enough to mate and lay their eggs, so they might only live a day or so. It doesn’t seem fair.”
“Well, it must be long enough. There sure are lots around. My mum hates them, as they cause the caterpillars in her garden,” stated Connor. He was stretched out on the grass, while Joe sat up in the seat, with a light blanket wrapped around her. Even on the warmest days, she still felt a chill, particularly as the sun went down. The light breeze cut right through her.
Pensively, Joe answered, “One day couldn’t be enough. What if it wasn’t a nice day? They wouldn’t get to see the sun, ever, if they were born on a stormy day. It’s horrible.”
“But they don’t know any different.”
“Well, I know different. Look at me; I’m never going to get to do all the things I planned. I wanted to go to university, and get a job, and get married … have kids of my own. Now, I won’t even get to have a boyfriend, or go on a date. It isn’t FAIR!”
Connor sat up, and looked over at his friend. She wasn’t crying, but she didn’t appear very happy. “I wish it wasn’t so,” he said, “I wish I could wave a magic wand and make you better.”
Joe sighed. “In the middle of the night, I get so angry at the world for letting me get leukaemia. I’m not a bad person, so why me? And then, sometimes, I hate you because you’re not sick. Then I think, that if I do have to die, it would be better if I just went. If I hate my best friend, simply because I’m sick and he’s not, maybe I do deserve it after all”
“Don’t be silly! You’re not bad. It’s just the luck of the draw. It could have been me. I bet I would feel just the same, if it was me.”
“Do you think?’ asked Joe. She slid down off the seat to sit down on the grass beside the stone pony, and rested her back against the sturdy, stone neck. Connor’s dog crawled on his tummy to lie down beside her, and put his head in her lap. Absently, Joe scratched at his ears with one hand, and used her other hand to encompass the scene around them. “I’m going to miss all this, and you, and my family … wherever I go. I don’t find the actual thought of death scary, you know. I just hate this hanging around, as my blood slowly nibbles me away, bit by bit.”
“It would get anyone down, Joe. But, look, you might still get better. The longer you hang around, the better chance the doctors have of curing you.”
“That isn’t going to happen. I know that. The doctor talks about not giving up hope, but his eyes look sick and tired when he says it. And Mum and Tarz are always so white around their lips, even when they are trying so hard to be brave for me.”
Connor started to sniffle. “I can’t bear to talk like this any more,” he said, “You’ve just got to get better.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean to make you cry,” apologised Joe, and gave Connor a hug. “Come on, you’re too big to cry.”
“I don’t think you’re ever too big to cry,” said Connor, gulping back on his tears. He wiped his eyes on the bottom hem of his shirt, as he had no handkerchief or tissues.
Connor had very good news for Joe the next day. A support group for children with terminal diseases has heard about her campaign. They were a group dedicated to helping the sick children achieve their dearest wishes, and they were considering Joe’s case. If they fell in behind the campaign, it would give Joe’s petition a lot of weight with the council.
The village near the oak changed over the centuries. It never developed into a city, or even a town, but progress was made all the same. The people were gradually converted to Christianity, and the oak and stone pony lost their cental importance to village festivals. Some people still visited them, but secretly, and usually alone. Human children no longer came to whisper secrets to the stone pony, and to caress him, and he missed them. No one came to place new bundles or ribbons in the oak’s branches. Maybe, if the shaman of Epona had still survived, or had delegated a replacement, the humans wouldn’t have forgotten about altar and the oak tree. But they were forgotten, all the same.
The seasons spun round. Half a millennium passed, with only the rare human visiting the stone pony or the oak. With most of Europe gripped by the iron discipline of the Christian faith, few dared to follow the old ways. Only the mad, or the very superstitious, showed any interest in anything that might be heresy.
As the Nineteenth Century arrived, farms began to encroach into the forest. One particularly large farm grew to encompass that part of the woods that held the oak and the stone pony. Fortunately, the family inhabiting that farm was superstitious, and neither the tree nor rock was molested as fields were cleared and tilled and tended. In fact, as the family grew more and more prosperous over succeeding generations, the oak tree and the former altar of Epona were considered to be central to the family’s luck.
During this time, the tree and rock had to adjust to the loss of their surrounding forest. As the farmers cleared more and more land, the deer and foxes and badgers disappeared. They were left in a small patch of greenery only a few hectares wide, spared to provide wood, and acorns and nuts for the pigs to forage on. The oak stood at the centre of this forest remnant.
Superstitious humans had learnt it was never a good idea to tamper with anything outside your understanding. If people believed in God and angels, they also believed in devils and witches, goblins and fairies. The tree and stone were obviously a part of these supernatural dealings. Good fortune was bought by showing respect to objects of power. And even after all the progress men had made, they could still vaguely sense that the oak and the stone pony had unique properties.
So, when one of the sons of the farm decided to immigrate to Australia, he wanted to take some luck with him. And he knew exactly were the greatest concentration of good luck was to be found.
The oak tree was massive, as it was very, very old. It would have been venerated for its beauty, even if it hadn’t been cherished for any other reason. The boy considered taking a cutting, or an acorn, from the oak … but it wouldn’t be the same. It would take years for such sapling to mature, and there was no guarantee it would survive in the hotter Southern climate.
As mad as it sounds, he decided to take the stone pony to Australia. It would be a dreadful job, digging it out of the ground, and boxing it, and freighting it out to the ship. It would cost quite a lot of money, money that could have been put to better use in settling a new land. But people have done stranger things, for less reason than wanting to take a comforting piece of home along to a new and unfamiliar country.
As the shovels cut into the sod around his base, all the stone pony could do was wonder at these strange doings. Then, a horse drawn wagon was lead under the oak, and a small army of men gathered to lift the rock onto the tray.
The stone pony was disorientated and confused. It had been such a long time since the humans had dredged him from the salmon’s pool; he had forgotten they had the power to shift him. Suddenly, he realised he was to be separated from the oak, as he had been separated from the salmon. Despair racked him.
“I don’t want to go! What can I do!” he cried to the oak. The humans heard nothing. They had long ago lost the power to communicate with nature. They no longer had shamans.
“There is nothing we can do,” said the oak, sadly. “They are blind and deaf to us. I will miss you. You have been a wonderful friend.”
The stone pony, realising he had to resign himself to his fate, tried to be as brave as the tree. “I have truly treasured our friendship. I will miss you, and I will remember you always.”
“Then I will have some sort of immortality. I am very blessed, to be fondly remembered by a stone.”
The stone pony was set up on an open ridge, near the centre of the Australian property. His first glimpse revealed an uninterrupted view for 360 degrees, with a ceiling above like an archway constructed in sun-bleached blue … a colour torrid and blazing with heat. Nothing sheltered him from the sky, for the first time in his history.
So, the mystery of the phases of moon, the yearly patterns of the stars and sun, and the vagrancies of weather were revealed to the stone pony. He was entranced by his new surroundings, though all the while he missed the oak and having someone to talk to. The native wildlife left him well alone, too busy with survival to have time for conversations with a piece of the landscape.
This led the stone pony into taking a deeper interest in the humans of the farm. They were always around, and doing things so bizarre, that they helped keep his intellect occupied.
He watched as three new generations came to tend the land. Tarz, still known as Bradley at this point in time, played Cowboys and Indians around him. The boy grew up wild, earning his nickname of ‘Tarzan’, but then matured into a talented craftsman. It was Tarz who built the rustic seat beside the rock. Then, a little flossy-blonde baby called Elaine scrambled over him, riding him or using him as a seat for tea parties. With so much contact with the humans, the stone learnt finally to understand their language. As well, he grew fond of them. It’s hard not to love someone who spends so much time with you.
In the last twelve years, it had been Joe who had spent most of her playtime with the stone pony. Of the three, she was the most interesting, as she had the nature that was closest to his own. As soon as she was able to read, she was exploring the world through her books. Her craving for knowledge and adventure were limitless.
Consider a sunbeam. A ray of light hasn’t the physical power to shift a downy feather. Yet, you can’t see without light. Sunshine has the ability to make the plants grow. A fiercely sunny day can rip the skin right off you, if you don’t protect yourself. To the stone pony, Joe was as warm and glowing as a sunbeam. She had started a little ember in his centre, so that any day without a visit from Joe was a shadowy, dull day. Something inside of him was growing in her presence, an echo of her humanity.
Connor had started coming over when Joe was four. His mother worked, and Elaine collected a small amount of cash by caring for him during the day. He and Joe hit it off right from the start, as he had an active and enthusiastic intellect. When the two of them were deep in an argument over some aspect of science or nature, the stone pony was an avid listener.
He grew content with his existence.
The Other Side of the Mountain
The council refused to consider the petition. A lot of research and money had gone into reassessing the policy for the rates designation of Joe’s farm and the surrounding area; it was money they were loathe to be seen as wasting, by reversing the decision.
This was a bitter blow.
Bill came over the day after the decision was announced. He came to inquire whether Tarz and Elaine would consider selling the farm. He might have to hold off the property settlement, to get full advantage of the profits from such a sale. After all, he was in no real hurry to pay for a divorce, and Elaine didn’t really want to get divorced at all.
When he saw Joe, all such considerations went right out of his head.
His daughter was nothing but bones. Her skin was ghostly, a pale webbing over the structure of her skeleton. The chemotherapy had stripped her of her hair, had ruined the texture of her skin, and had left strange shadows all over her body. Her eyes were large within the bruised recesses of their sockets.
“Wow, kid, how are you feeling?” Bill asked. He wondered if Joe would protest if he took her in his arms for a hug. Suddenly, he realised he was going to lose her, his little girl. It cut into him like a heated chisel. He risked the cuddle.
Joe tried weakly to hug him back. At this point in time, she was beyond holding grudges. She knew her father was a shallow, unthinking individual, but he was still her father. She kissed him on the cheek. “Well, Bill, the doctor’s coming around later to fix me up with a drip. Apart from that, things are pretty much business as usual.”
“Why do you need a drip?”
Elaine broke in, “It’s for pain management in the main part,” she said, “Joe refuses to go into hospital, and so we are arranging to nurse her from home. The doctor is going to drop by every day, and we are hoping to get our hands on a nurse. With luck, we can get one who will reside here.”
“Oh,” gulped Bill. He looked down at Joe, her body so shrunken with her battle to live. “Is there anything I can do for you right now, Joe?”
“Yes, there is,” said Joe, softly, “I would like it if you would carry me up to the stone pony seat, and watch the sun go down with me. Just you and me, Dad.”
A few days later, Connor and Elaine were in a state of high excitement. They had just been into town, to meet with the representatives from the support group for terminally ill children. For a change, they had good news for Joe.
“Joe! Joe!” called out Elaine, “Where are you?”
Tarz came out of the kitchen, where he had been washing the dishes from lunch. “I carried her up to the hill seat. What are you sounding so happy about?”
Elaine flashed him the most beautiful smile. For the moment, she looked like the woman she had been two years ago, before Joe had developed leukaemia. “The foundation is going to buy the land across the road, all of it. They are going to make it into a camp. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Yes! That’s fantastic,” agreed Tarz, grinning back at her.
“Connor, you go up and tell her,” said Elaine, “You did so much of the work, you should be the one to give her the news.”
Connor flew up the ridge to the stone pony seat. Joe was lying down across the seat, tucked under a quilt; her drip propped up beside her. Tarz had rigged a temporary sunshade so that her skin wouldn’t burn, as she spent a lot of time with the stone pony. He told her the plans for the property across the road.
“So, you’ve saved that much, Joe,” laughed Connor.
Joe had been feeling very tired and nauseous, but perked up at Connor’s news. “With Mum and Tarz promising to keep the farm, and with this land purchase, most of the area will stay rural after all,” Joe whispered. “We’ve beaten the council.”
“Yes. The view from up here won’t change much, in the end.”
Joe closed her eyes, and a trickle of happy tears crept out from under her lids. “And the land will be going to kids like me. I know it will help them, and give them strength. I’ve always found it easier to be brave, up here.”
Joe hoped to make it to Christmas. She had Connor buy presents for her mother and Tarz, and asked Tarz to make Connor a handsome desk and chair. She managed to get a card and letter ready for her father. Christmas still held a lot of magic for her.
But, as the spring turned into summer … her conditioned worsened. The doctor wanted to put her back into hospital. Joe refused. She wanted to stay at home, with her farm and family and friends. She was terrified of dying in the hospital.
In the end, she got her wish.
Joe was now too ill to be taken up to the stone pony seat, and left alone. She didn’t want go up there with the nurse. The nurse was a nice woman, but it wasn’t what Joe wanted. So, on the first day of the holidays, Connor and Joe went up to the stone pony. This was on the condition they were there for only an hour, to watch the sunset. And Connor had to promise to came and fetch someone if anything changed in Joe’s condition.
Joe found it tiring to speak, at this point. But she had something she desperately wanted to discuss with Connor.
Once they were settled, Joe said huskily, “You’ve got to look after my Mum.”
“Tarz will manage, and he’ll do his best, but you’ve got to come and see her. Tell her how much I love her.”
“Oh no, Joe”
“Yes, you’ve got to,” rasped Joe, her voice just another rustle in the breeze. “And remember, you are the best friend anyone ever had.”
Joe couldn’t say any more. Even those few sentences had wrung her out.
Together, Connor and Joe watched the sunset. It wasn’t a spectacular sunset, but there were rich orange rims on the clouds, and the sky went a lovely plum colour as it darkened into night. And the nurse was kind; she didn’t come to collect Joe until the first of the stars came out.
The nurse never regretted giving Joe those extra minutes outside.
That night, Joe crossed over to the other side of the mountain, where there is no pain. She went with a faint smile on her face, holding both her mother’s and her grandfather’s hands. She died in her own bed, in her own house, just as she wanted.
Connor cried and cried. He exhausted himself with grief, so that he had difficulty in drawing air against the sobs that racked his body. It took him quite a while to gain enough control that he could breathe properly.
As the first stars came out, Tarz came up to sit with the boy. “Try to remember she has gone to a better place,” said Joe’s grandfather. “All her troubles can no longer hurt her.”
“Do you really believe that?” asked Connor. His eyes were still quite wet.
“Yes, I do. And one day, you and I will see her again, wherever she has gone.”
The stone pony, awash with his own grief and despair, felt these words hit him like hammer blows. He might never die, as such. Some of the people that had worshiped him had considered him fey, a fairy beast, and believed he shared no soul with them: so that even if he could die, he wouldn’t be with Joe.
It was a thought that burned beyond bearing.
The stone pony couldn’t spend the rest of eternity without her. He has lost friends before: the salmon and the oak tree and the littlest dragon. He had coped with their loss. Joe was different. He had truly learnt about love, because he had loved Joe.
With all the wisdom he had accumulated, there had to be some solution to this dilemma. What was the use of his existence, if he was left bereft of anything worthwhile? Knowledge was a comfort when you are lonely, but it couldn’t replace the friendship of a real living being, and certainly it couldn’t replace Joe.
The stone thought about it good and hard. He didn’t even notice when Connor and Tarz left him alone. The moon rose, it neared midnight, and still he pondered the problem of his possible soul and near immortality. It wasn’t until dawn that the solution presented itself.
He had to stop being a stone.
Joe had once read a story about a little mermaid earning a soul, and she and Connor had argued out the implications of this for hours. In the end, the children had agreed that a human might be born with a soul, but could lose it, and other creatures could gain a soul by exhibiting spiritual virtues.
Logically, all virtuous humans should end up in the same place. The stone pony was a little unsure of this. What if he was wrong? Still, to see Joe again, he was prepared to risk anything.
The approaching sunrise had just started to lighten the horizon. In the grey light, the stone pony shook itself and stood up, a faint gleam in the surrounding darkness. He took a few steps, and gained confidence.
He tossed his horned head. A shimmering change gripped his form. And in the pony’s place, there stood a young girl, as pale and fair as a star, with a pearl-pure face.
Joe had missed out on so much of life. All those things she had wanted to achieve, the lass who had been the stone pony would attempt. And, one day, when they were together again, they could share all that…and be real friends.