Stones will trick you into believing that they’re immovable and lifeless. You look at a rocky mountain and think: that has stood there for aeons. Pebbles have been sunbathing on a beach for centuries and rocks have remained strong as a foundation of your house for decades. It’s humans who are restless and fickle and move around from one corner of the Earth to another or from a village to a town. We get bored, we change jobs, fall in love with a foreigner, or seek an adventure. We move; stones remain. Scandinavian languages even have an expression that illustrates how inert we perceive stones to be: att sova som en sten – to sleep like a stone, dead to the world.
I’ve wondered sometimes if stones get bored, too, of the same spot in the shade or of being licked by a cold stream day in and day out. I’ve wondered if they don’t call out to us to move them. Because they do move. They travel from place to place, across borders, downstream, in rucksacks and dirty pockets of children’s overalls. And they call to us in mysterious ways. Their presence in our lives may be quiet and unobtrusive but it’s persistent and tangible. Think of the mysterious polished stone balls found in burial sites around Britain from more than 5,000 years ago. Although their purpose is unclear, the amount of work invested in polishing and carving these balls hints at their importance.
Stones are important to me too. Every time I visit my hometown, I bring back stones from the riverbank. I collect them because they’re black or perfectly round, have a hole which makes them ideal as a pendant or are shaped peculiarly. But the truth is, I collect them because I miss the river and my hometown, because of the memories that become more and more intangible as I age. So, I replace them with colourful pebbles and driftwood as if I could drift back in time to a place that no longer exists and where the only thing that remains the same are the stones that form the riverbank.
On another riverbank, my heart was broken many years ago. Shattered. I’m still picking up the shards, filling my pockets with glacial-white pebbles. The pieces of the heart don’t fit any longer, but better to hold a handful of memories than nothing at all. The stones’ cool, smooth surfaces soothe the ache that is still too sharp to be mere reminiscence. Perhaps he had a heart of stone just like this one I think as I pick up another one – grey, heart-shaped, and cold.
I have a box of stones on my shelves. When I feel lost or in need of encouragement or direction, I stack them into piles or lay them out into patterns. Sometimes they inspire me, sometimes they don’t. It probably depends on my mood, but what if it depends on the stones and their willingness to cooperate? We don’t know anymore how to listen to them. We ignore anything that’s not loud and in our faces. As a species, we’ve lost touch with our foundation. My house doesn’t have one either but it’s built of stone and it’s stood the test of time for over a century. I like the thick walls, the fortress-like feel to them. It makes phone reception terrible and I’m sometimes unavailable as a result. Occasionally, it’s important to be unavailable for other people’s demands. The stone walls protect me, sometimes even from myself.
When I finished my PhD, I had a piece of black local rock polished and inscribed with a dedication for my supervisor. I packed it in my suitcase and carried it on a plane, a train, a bus and lastly in a taxi to give it to her. It was the longest voyage I facilitated for a stone (so far). I don’t know if she agrees, but stones can be a precious, almost sacred gift. They will outlast the giver and the recipient just like genuine gratitude outlasts the act of giving a gift in its name. Perhaps to her, it was just a useful paperweight or not even that.
I pass downward-headed rocks when I go mountain climbing. Recently, I picked one up and took it home to give to my mum who will transform it into a fairy house for her garden. The piece of limestone was an almost perfect rectangular solid as it has been compressed in layers for about 65 million years until it chipped off the main vein. After all this time, it has made its way down to the bottom of the valley with a little help from me.
I marvel at the stones’ patience as they move and roll and fall in small increments over decades and centuries. They take their time travelling and have no goal envisioned for themselves. The epitome of the saying Life is a journey, not a destination. I try to emulate them, and as I grow older, I am more and more successful at it. The ultimate destination no longer appeals to me as I become increasingly more aware of what it is. There’s an end to everything, even to rocks and stones as they slowly dissolve in water or are ground into dust on land. They just take more time to reach their end compared to us. Rocks and we are more alike than we think. But they are more secretive about their lives and so we’ve been lulled into thinking that they’re irrelevant.
Like many things in life, our link to stones comes full circle at some point. A stone slab will mark my resting spot eventually. My name will be inscribed on its polished surface. After a lifetime of rocks leaving a mark on me, I will leave a mark on a stone.
Brigita Orel has published short stories and essays in Litro, Two-Thirds North and Cinnamon Press anthologies. Her picture book The Pirate Tree (Lantana Publishing, 2019) was shortlisted for the Derby Children’s Picture Book Award. She lives in Slovenia where she works as a literary translator.