At the top of the hill whose slope is bisected by the Living Stone, there lies a ruined castle that once belonged to a lineage of dukes. Today it serves as a wedding venue. The hill rolls out and down into a broad valley, and between its highest and lowest points, though closer to the former, the Stone runs across it like a low wall. An old formation in an old part of the world: thirty horizontal feet of uninterrupted natural slab, risen from the earth, wide and high as a chair. And right now, looking downhill through the notch where the wall is split as if artificially in the shape of a V, the setting sun sits like an onion in a glass.
She is walking a dozen paces ahead of him, and the sun is so low that he treads on the head of her shadow. He feels sick, more so as the pounding noise from the wedding party fades like breakers beyond the sea-path. As he approaches the Stone, she takes a seat to the right of the V, her spine showing faintly through the back of her dress. He is beginning to sweat and clutches his phone in his pocket. Sitting, now, it feels a crime to let his calves be cushioned by the living part of the Stone. He strains his thighs and pivots slightly up and away. He does not dare speak first, only watches her from the side of his vision as she tends to the sun. Caressing her shoulder might ease her into saying whatever is on her mind. But the gulf of the V separates them by exactly the length of an arm, and his hand, the one he would otherwise reach out, is gripping his phone, trying to dampen the vibrations from the incoming texts.
All she said was that she wanted to take the air. “It is getting cold out here,” he says. “We should probably get back to the party. I requested Joan Armatrading like we always dance to, and I think the slow part of the night is coming.”
“I need to talk to you,” she says.
He swallows. Perhaps a change of subject. He smooths his free hand over the living face of the Stone. “You cannot see the flowers much anymore,” he says, “with the light going. But did you see them earlier? When we were touring the grounds? The most vibrant blues and reds and yellows and violets I have ever seen.”
“Gentian,” she says. Aster, daffodil, iris. Anemone. Like a poet.
“How did they grow all together like that?” he says.
She shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“Are they even native to this region?”
“I don’t know, they must be.”
“Yes,” he says. “That is what the brochure at the manor says. They grow right out of the rock and no one knows why.”
When he saw them earlier, he thought they were fake, so neatly did they curve and array like logarithms on either side of the deep V, being most dense and vibrant at the nadir and tapering off in wings at either end. The groundskeeper was watering them one corolla at a time, as the brochure says is required for their maintenance. He is in the clear now that they are talking of the Stone. The vibrating has stopped. He knows it is her because she always texts like this, in large clusters of individual messages. He knows the pattern and when he is not alone it panics him, and when it stops, he breathes as after a small earthquake.
“We need to talk,” she says.
“What about?” He tries drying his palm on the decline of the V. It is smooth and cold and almost sheer and grounds him from his mind.
“Are you cheating?” she says.
“How could you ask that?”
She looks at him for the first time. The night is on and her dark face has grown darker. Her eyes glow as if lit from within. She is trying to see something in him, he knows, and now her ear and necklace catch the yellower radiance from the tent where the bass is still going at regular intervals. “Truth-tellers don’t answer a question with a question,” she says.
He clicks his tongue. “I am telling the truth.”
“You are not telling me anything yet.”
“I did not cheat on you, okay. I would never.” He would. He thinks about it so often it scares him. It began a year ago, back at home, lying in the dark. It was a moment. The heat of her sleeping body warmed his right arm and leg and rolled over him in a gradient, waning at the fork of his groin, barely eking out of the fingers of his left hand. He thought about the weight of years, about how they trapped you, saddled you with other people’s feelings, paralyzed you with habit. He thought about the many possible moments with the many women, at work, at the checkout line, wherever. He wondered about some of them, specifically, there in the dark, resuscitating the fragments of names he had been offered like redundant gifts. Habit had taught him never to need more than one of something.
His phone vibrates again: one, two, three, four distinct rounds. He is frozen, still looking into her eyes like he knows he should, still trying to force the landing of his I would never. His hand still grips this side of the V, the stone no longer cold against it.
And then they were in his head and he set to sleuthing on Facebook, LinkedIn, wherever. He felt raw and powerful and hot like a stone ringing the perimeter of a campfire. Here and there the results were good and he could go deep into the online presences, dredging fodder for his reveries which became more constant and more distracting with each passing day.
It is true he did not do anything: he never once messaged any of them, only sometimes did he like a poignant post or a bikini photo. That was all. But it is also true that he went about this with the utmost secrecy. His phone password doubled to eight characters, he scrolled only from advantageous positions, his eyes being the only ones with access to his screen, he deleted his search histories. He took many precautions, none of which were a crime.
Only — he fears admitting to himself — maybe it primed him for one. It was a thawing, a proving, for what would come, at work or in a bar or at the store. It dissolved the hard barrier he had learned so scrupulously to put up in a certain kind of text conversation. It drove a wedge into the laws of accreted time and pried the layers open, tricking him into freedom.
His phone vibrates again: one, two, three, four distinct rounds. He is frozen, still looking into her eyes like he knows he should, still trying to force the landing of his I would never. His hand still grips this side of the V, the stone no longer cold against it. She hears it this time: her gaze breaks for a moment in the direction of his pocket, then meets his once more.
“Who is that?” she says.
“Who is what?”
“Show me your phone.”
“My phone? Why?”
“Show it to me. I want to see who it is.”
“Don’t be daft. That is my private property.”
“How convenient. You want to convince me you are not cheating? Show me.” Her eyes bore into his as she places her palm between them.
He swallows. The sweat is there again, slicking off his palm as he moves to retrieve the device. “I just need to unlock it,” he says, holding it high up to his face advantageously.
She snatches at it, lunging diagonally across the V, and he holds fast, and now they are both tearing at the machine-smoothed rectangle, pressing hard into the screen with their whitened finger tips, discoloring it, straining in an ancient posture of violence, creature and creature.
“What are you doing?” he says.
“Making sure you don’t delete anything.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” He grunts.
“It does not take that long to type in a password.” She pulls harder and so does he.
They are more illumined now by the tent than they were before. Suddenly the music stops, and they are made aware of one another’s breathing, which swells with the straining. In the animal silence he feels overcome. Or rather drawn out, like the riptide riding a breaker — an emptying. It is over now, one way or another. The only possibility he can preserve is that of it never being proved for certain.
With a deep breath and savage vigor, he groans and snatches the phone from her fingers. He raises it like Cain with the rock and smashes it against the point created by the oblique angle of the outer edge of the V and the horizontal obstinacy of the stone. The glass shatters and he chips the nail clean off his middle finger, the adrenaline shrouding the pain. The brutality of the gesture, the primordial silence that follows it, sucks the air from her lungs. She looks at him with big eyes as if at a beast, no longer seeming to recognize him, her anger turned to terror. She tries to say something, but only rasps. A pulling, a vacating, heavy breathing. The blood gathers in the nail bed and trickles down toward the pointed convergence, where it begins to bloom.
◊ ◊ ◊
They lock eyes, the two of them: he with his weight bearing upon the rough, low wall, and the prisoner with head now upturned, bloody-lipped, peering between the shoulders of his gaolers. Between them everything passes. The prisoner tries to tell him everything that can be said with the eyes: I am sorry. But also: Do not forget me.
The rain thrums the knoll as it has been doing for days, the earth sick with water, saturated to the full. The onlookers stand with their canvassed feet ankle-deep in the broad stream, squelching the tremulous ground as they murmur to one another and form a semicircle. They hear a groan, like the ship’s timber cresting a storm-swell: the sky cracks, sending crows in a puff of vapor down along the vale, damp and heavy with waterlogged wings.
Behind them, from inside the low stone castle up the hill, built for the duke, a drumming begins. It moves slowly out of the obscurity of the great inner hall, reverberating deeper with each passing second into the rickety knees of the vassals at the crowd’s periphery, then in the rib cages of the lowly thanes, and then in the lords. The shell of morning has only just been cracked, the purple darkness not yet lifted from the low-lying mists and the old stones green with lichen.
The procession is slow, deliberate. The drummer is first. With each solemn step small bells jingle at the tops of his high cowhide boots. Someone in the semicircle of the waiting crowd, a man with matted brown hair and deep rings beneath his eyes, swallows, grows faint, and places his dirt-coated palm upon the Stone. Then he sees a cluster of gaolers, in the middle of whom the prisoner walks, head bent at a right angle, the knob of his spine straining against the skin of his nape, wrists bound and chafed, feet bare, the gelatinous soil spewing up between his toes. And then a long gap, at the end of which stride the proud, solid-bound feet, legs, and thighs of the duke, Ӕlfric, breaker and giver of rings. And behind him, heavy yet swift as shadow, the cloaked executioner.
They lock eyes, the two of them: he with his weight bearing upon the rough, low wall, and the prisoner with head now upturned, bloody-lipped, peering between the shoulders of his gaolers. Between them everything passes. The prisoner tries to tell him everything that can be said with the eyes: I am sorry. But also: Do not forget me. And then: Would that thou shouldst not dwell in regret. Do not be burdened thus, the other says, borrowing a little strength from his earthborn support, the rough stone hewn in its center, as if therein dwelled some long-forgotten vitality.
He wants to speak, but his lips are stuck to the sappy stalk of the golden flower. His nose is plunged deep into the pistil, the pollen clinging like dew to the cilia. He smiles, inhales, recalling his pleasures.
And then, he is struck with remembering. He does not want to abandon his lover’s gaze, but he recalls what his thane told him: that out and over the vale, where Ӕlfric settled his claim in the great battle din, whence he sits atop his battlements and watches over the whale-road, there lies the Nerve of gods, that Great Sensitivity, the V-shaped archway to deep-Earth and parted-cloud both, whereupon a singular flower sprouts, nourished by the battle-sweat of men put honorably to the quick. His thane has seen it, once, upon the sacrifice of the year-star.
And now he sees it. He is there, hand upon the rock. But where is the flower? He leans over, methodically and without attracting attention, as if in league with the hill’s grade. The stone is broad as his arse and thighs — he is reaching to see, practically horizontal at the hip when he spies it: a yellow-petaled beauty, thick-stalked as a fistfull of straw, big and open as the heaven-candle when it sits in the cistern by his lord’s door. It sprouts delicately from the lowest point in the stone’s break, an elegant canyon cut into the wall itself, precise as only man could make it, hard with the brutality of Nature. As a child, he heard for the first time (covered with manure and wheat-stalks, being kicked and pummeled and buried alive by the other children for sport) that Ӕlfric himself had coaxed the rock into its hard divergence simply by speaking to it. This is the source of his nickname, Liflicstan.
It is breathtaking. He touches it, reads its ungiving wrinkles. Everything he was given as legend, here confirmed in its brutality, in the coldness of its being. Now the prisoner returns to his vision, meeting the point at which his attention has been locked, bewitched. The gaolers fan out around the condemned, one collapsing the backs of his knees with two steady kicks. The man’s weight meets the giving earth, which lets forth a sigh, a fleeting miasma, cleared now by the working stream and the rain that feeds it, mounting against the stone’s obstacle and draining in a slow and equal current along its endless lengths. The crowd moves cautiously, wanting not to break the ceremony but hoping still to follow the sky of the hair-parting as it rolls and bounds into the valley fog below. The belts and hide-sheaths creak with the straining.
The prisoner’s black hair drains along his spine. He closes his eyes, thinking of the sea-swells and the breaker of trees, the sense of his flesh upon the wet earth and the swollen hours they spent before being torn from the womb of their paradise.
The ring-giver, Ӕlfric, unfurling the wet and weepy scroll, brings a heaviness upon him, upon the innocence born of a child like any other. The prisoner is closing his eyes, he is thinking upon the ancestors, upon the fields pregnant with flowers, radiant with color. A gentle hand, like that of his life-giver, or that of his lover, presses his back between the blades, urging his supple throat into the groin of the V. It is smooth and cold and almost sheer and grounds him from his mind.
He wants to speak, but his lips are stuck to the sappy stalk of the golden flower. His nose is plunged deep into the pistil, the pollen clinging like dew to the cilia. He smiles, inhales, recalling his pleasures. May this be my transference, he thinks. Would that I were to bloom. Would that I —
The broad blade swings through the rising air. It comes down in a murmuration along the vale, a breath of flowers.
Ben Libman is a writer in Montréal and the Bay Area. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Rambling, and elsewhere. He is currently a PhD Student in English at Stanford University.