MOUNTAINS AND PEBBLES AND SAND
By Douglas Bruton
There are fish bones in the mountains, pressed between the flat prayer-palms of stone, and ammonite shells shiny and ridged, and impressions of things that once swam in the sea caught in rock the colour of seabed-sand. That’s what Edwin’s grandfather told him. He said it was the earth’s story and it was like going back to the first page of a book and starting the story over, always going back.
And Edwin’s grandfather beginning in on a story of when he was a stripped-back boy, telling it like it was a new story even though he’d told it a hundred times over, not leaving out even the smallest detail, the smallest grain of sand.
‘It’s a pebble you want. Pebbles are best.’
Edwin finds them at the mouth of the river and he knows they have come a long way.
‘The river brings ‘em down from the mountains, rolls ‘em as bits of broken stone, over and over, knocking the edges till they’re smooth and round and small as marbles or musket balls.’
Edwin picks them out of the water, holds them between the pinch of finger and thumb, holds them to his ear, listening for the perfected stories they hold, stories of times already gone.
‘You got to keep your tongue and not breathe and still your heartbeats, if you’re to hear the stories.’
His grandfather’s voice all breath and blow and small sound. Like he’s always telling secrets.
‘One year it rained so hard the fields flooded. Water came up to the front door, lapping lip over lip, fish swimming in the flowerbeds. And when the waters slipped away again there was lost silver minnows laying dead at the feet of trees, the broken sky reflected in their black staring eyes.’
Edwin drops the pebble into his pocket, with a hundred other pebbles, making the sound of teeth clicking when he moves and the weight of the pocket shifts against him. And he remembers a paper bag of peppermint sweets nestled in the bulge of his grandfather’s jacket pocket, the paper soft as cloth, and didn’t he offer the boy one?
‘Don’t tell your mam, see,’ his grandfather said. ‘She says they’ll rot your teeth or spoil your appetite or make you fat as well-fed pigs the day before slaughter.’
And Edwin dipped his fingers into the bag, feeling for the mint imperials, making the sound that pebbles make now in his own pocket, or the sound of his grandfather’s teeth when he took ‘em out of his mouth and they chattered like castanets in his hand. At night his grandfather kept his teeth in a glass of water by the bed, sunk to the bottom where the undissolved sediment of a Steradent tablet had settled.
‘It’s a pebble you want, hard and black and polished. Like a story that’s told over and over.’
Like the stories his grandfather told him.
‘We was sixteen when your grandmother and me was married. Same age as you. She was pretty as peaches or pears. I had three jobs. By day I worked as a salesman selling sand; by night I punched down the once-risen dough and shaped it into loaf-tins and watched it rise again before baking. And lastly, I delivered newspapers when the world was still sleeping and had no need yet of news.’
Edwin weighs a pebble in his hand, feels the small heavy that it is, and he smiles.
‘And one day, the war came, rolling down like sudden thunder. Your grandmother and me was married, quick as lickety-split, and I went off to fight.’
There’s a picture of the boy Edwin’s grandfather says he was, dressed as a soldier and whippet-thin. He smiles a little uncertainly at the camera and you can see his teeth and they’re his own teeth and one of them is black. And there’s a bulge in the pocket of his uniform, which Edwin thinks might be a bag of mint imperials. On the back of the picture is his grandfather’s name written in pencil, all the letters curling and tailed, like fish caught in writing. ‘Edwin,’ it says, for that’s something they shared.
And Edwin’s grandfather shot a man.
‘Shush now. It’s a story pressed ‘tween two prayer-palms of stone, like fish found in the mountain, and caught like that it can’t never be forgot.’
Edwin’s grandfather shot a man. Except the man Edwin’s grandfather shot was no nearer being a man than he himself had been, no nearer a man than Edwin is now. Boys really, both of them, smiling for the camera, and one boy shot the other in the head. A hole as small as a mint drop on the dead boy’s brow and the shot-boy flung himself backwards as if he could retreat from what had just happened, arms thrown wide, legs, too, so he was a falling-star, and bright as an angel, except for the black pebble-sized hole in his head.
‘Twas a long time ago,’ Edwin’s grandfather says sadly. ‘More years than need be counted, more than the mint imperials in a full bag.’
He’s told the story a hundred times or more since, turning it over and over, till it’s smooth and round and hard. Fixed, but not like stone, and each time it’s like he’s telling it the first time, only it’s a long way from the truth it once was – as all good stories are, so the boy that was shot is nearer and nearer to good and to God. And now Edwin’s grandfather tells the same story over and over in Edwin’s head and Edwin’s lips make the shapes of the words, all breath and blow and no sound.
‘If I’d one wish in this world,’ his grandfather says, tears in his old eyes when he speaks, ‘it would be to go back to that time, which is the beginning and end of everything, and I’d take back that shot so that two boys walked from the battlefield that day.’
Edwin picks another pebble from the mouth of the river, examines it the same as all the others. Then he puts it in his pocket, clicking like teeth with the rest. He carries them all along the line of the river, carrying them back to where they’d once had their beginning. Miles it is, and Edwin’s patient and sure. All the way back to where the land lifts like second-rise bread, to a place at last where water leaks from the stone, as clear as cried tears. There the boy lays down the pebbles, so they can begin the journey again, and be as small as grains of sand when they’re done and back at the river mouth once more.
‘Mountains are just layers of sand,’ his grandfather had said, ‘layers of sand pressed so hard together they’re made stone again, like a circle that’s never broken.’
Edwin’s thinking of proposing to a girl called Alice. She’s pretty as peaches or pears. And there’s the sound of thunder again in the waking news, and Edwin will be a soldier like his grandfather was before, smiling for the camera, and in that way the story never ends.
Douglas Bruton finds stories in his pockets and he does not know who put them there. He takes them out and polishes them and then gifts them to passers by. Sometimes he sends them to competitions and magazines. He has been published in many nice places, including The Eildon Tree, Transmission, The Delinquent, Grasslimb Journal, The Blood Orange Review, The Vestal Review, Storyglossia, Ranfurly Review, The Smoking Poet, Interpreter’s House, Flash Magazine, Brittle Star Magazine, The Irish Literary Review and Fiction Attic Press.