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The Stone

A short story about a heart freed from grief.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Ruby nudged the edge of the creamy coloured stone with her big toe as the warm salty water crested gently over her sun browned foot. Bending over, she pried the stone from the sand and bounced it in her hand to feel its weight.

She was always fascinated by the stones on this particular little crescent of beach. They were large and round, small and oddly shaped and of every colour and stripe. Striped indeed, many stones looked like they had been etched like ancient runes. Ruby always felt that she was walking on particles of stars when she walked on this lonely island beach.

Ruby wasn’t her real name. She had chosen it for herself the year her parents had been killed in a car accident. She was seventeen. Her life was shattered in an instant and from that moment on she decided to invent herself anew every day. It started with her name. 

She remembered her mother telling her a story of her cousin’s grandmother and great aunt. The grandmother was tall and elegantly slender, silver hair and stern blue eyes. Her name was Lily and it suited her. She had a sister, an older sister who was as plain and homely as Lily was lovely and flower like. She was born with small port wine-red birthmark on her cheek. The story was that several doctors, specialists of the time, had tried to remove it (on the eve of the 19th century, how they tried is anyone’s guess) with the result that the plum coloured mark dilated instead of disappearing and leached across her entire face and down her neck where it sequestered itself behind high buttoned blouses.

One wonders at the silliness or cruelty of parents who named her Ruby as if to broadcast her defect. Ruby was never taken very seriously and was propped in a corner at family gatherings where children were loath to approach her. While Lily grew into a debutant, Ruby grew bent over and heavy with shame.

Ruby was told this story by her mother when she said one time that she liked the name Ruby. She had heard the name in a bedtime story and liked the feeling it gave her. Her mother told her she already had a perfectly good name. Sally. She hated it. When she was little and would play dress-up and talk to herself in the mirror wrapped in flowing fabric ends, she would call herself Princess Ruby. 

Ruby’s mother should have been called Sally. Sally is a little girl’s name and Ruby always felt that her mother was more like a little girl. She was always decorating the house for one event or another. Buying cheap fake tulips and putting them in window boxes pretending spring before its time or buying glasses with painted spider webs for Hallowe’en. There were cupboards full of stuff that only got used once and forgotten. Ruby didn’t like fake stuff. She would rather have a real stone like this one in her hand or a bird’s nest with some bits of smooth aqua robin egg shell than dolls or other valueless things that someone who didn’t care made all day in a factory in some remote country.

Ruby’s father was away a lot. By all accounts, mostly his own, he was an important man and was the one to “call the shots”. He worked for a big multinational corporation. As far as Ruby could tell, he was a slave to a giant and lived on airplanes with his computer in a backpack. His job was to go to all the small divisions of the corporation and shout down the halls “Heads will roll!” so everyone would be indelibly committed to their contribution to the bottom line… or else.

He used to get nervous once a year when the “head honchos” higher than he would do the performance assessments. This often pitted one employee against another so that the competition was not in the marketplace against like companies, but within its walls between people who outwardly acted like friends, but were quite at ease with slicing a friend’s throat for a promotion.

That was what was going on the night her parents were killed. I guess the assessment went well for her father. Her mother called and said in her breathy little voice, “Daddy got a promotion! And we are being taken out to dinner by the boss!” Of course, she would say “the boss” because she was raised to believe in the pecking order. To use his name with her daughter would be too familiar even when no one else would hear her.

After a lavish and lengthy dinner, the cigar smoking, scotch connoisseur boss insisted on driving Ruby’s mother and father to their car parked back at the office. 

It was after two o’clock in the morning when the police came to the door. 

The stone Ruby pried out of the compacted sand was creamy white and yellowish, the size of a walnut shell and quite heavy in her palm. On the “back” were evenly spaced lines as if scratched by small ancient claws. Ruby turned it over.  There was an arced indentation as if scraped out and a most curious etching in grey. It was as if a fine paint brush outlined the edge and drew in a heart. As she walked back along the sand to her beach chair at the edge of the sea, Ruby turned the stone around and around looking deeply at the etching. Sometimes she imagined she saw a man’s cartoon profile, then at a half turn, the face of a small dog or fawn. 

Sitting low in her deep blue canvas beach chair, Ruby reached her feet into the water and let the dark sea grasses play around her toes in the gentle inhale and exhale of the sea breathing this calm day. This was a secluded crescent of sand. The beach was stacked high with decades of dry sea grass washing higher with each storm until is nearly buried a boat pulled up quickly from the sea and left under the trees, likely years ago. Only the nose of the bow peeked out now from its nest of packed sea grass. Washed out blue. Someone’s boat. Did they fish? Did they explore? Why did they pull it ashore and never go back? Half buried and blowing across the top of the dry and scraggy sand beyond was a sorry abundance of plastic bottles, single flip flops, pieces of rope and chunks of polystyrene. Someone had brought down a huge black garbage bag to fill. Ruby guessed they gave up seeing that one big bag made little difference. Now the bag had toppled, spilling its reclaimed contents back onto the ground. 

Golden rocks rose up on either side of the cove in mini cliffs. Some ancient sigh of Earth’s heaved and tilted the rocks in sloping layers into the sea. Spiked black sea urchins clung to rocks visible below the surface. Where Ruby sat, she could see nothing but sea and the island of Salaminas where the Athenians had conquered the Persian army, outnumbered 10 to 1. That was twenty-five hundred years ago. 

A small wall made of concrete and large pebbles formed a tiny harbour where a few boats gently rocked in a sleepy cadence with the sea. Ruby had watched a shirtless man row his boat into the bay and circle behind the breakwater. It had a mast without a sail and seemed awkward to steer, but he managed. He stepped out onto the jetty and secured the boat. He was wearing bright green swimming trunks with black flip flops on his feet. Ruby hoped he would go away quickly. She looked to the sea and then back to see the man had gone. She was alone against a backdrop of empty summer apartments with quiet balconies and shuttered windows. 

Ruby read somewhere once that when you keep looking ahead to see how far you have to go to meet your goals, it is good to look back and see how far you have come. Once she changed her name for good, Ruby walked away from painful memory and began setting goals. The first was to graduate high school and get a scholarship for college since there was no money left for her. That first quivering year, Ruby lived with her aunt and uncle. Her mother’s sister who couldn’t get her head around calling her Ruby. 

“Perhaps you’d prefer your formal name of Sarah instead of Sally?” she tempted. 

“No. Ruby is my name. Please call me that or I won’t answer,” she said feeling bold and empowered. 

Her uncle, who was an idiot by any description, said “At least it’s not some Hindu name like Namaste Jefferson” as he took a deep swallow of beer from a bottle and turned the hamburgers on the BBQ.

Ruby didn’t truly hate it there. She had her own suite of rooms with a bright study area that she put to good use. She finally convinced her aunt and uncle she wouldn’t waste away to nothing if she became vegetarian. She began to cook her own meals. Her aunt and uncle came to actually enjoy her cooking once they got over the whole crazy idea of not eating meat at least once a day. 

She got her scholarship and her aunt and uncle proudly applauded her at graduation, her aunt with bright tears in her eyes. Ruby thought the whole pageantry rather stagey, but she was glad to have her honours diploma and the letter at home offering her a scholarship to study pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. She had several offers but chose BC to be too far away for weekend or vacation visits home. She didn’t need family. She had herself. And her goals.

She chose pharmacology so she could be on the cusp of change when the world woke up to the intelligence of the body and the need for health support rather than fixes. Ruby’s goal was to graduate with honours, which she did. She still dreamed of a wellness- rather than sickness-based health system despite the status quo that richly endorsed pharmaceutical companies. That was not going to change any time soon. But she would continue to carry the banner.

That wasn’t to say she didn’t enjoy her work. She saw many people in physical distress helped by science. But each year, for her vacation, Ruby took courses and workshops in naturopathy, homeopathic medicine and nutrition. She saw the relationship between lifestyle and health and wanted to be part of that. That hadn’t happened yet.

Out of college, she took a job in a small family-run pharmacy in Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley. It was beautiful there and Ruby felt she had a home for the first time since her parents’ death. She loved hiking and became a proficient skier. In the fall she would go with her few friends and pick apples. That’s where she met Mike. 

Mike owned the orchard and was a blond haired, blue eyed god, tall and broad shouldered. He and his wife Angie had big plans to create a winery and had begun research on heritage vines from France and Italy. Ruby and Angie became great friends. It was rare indeed for Ruby to let anyone in close, but somehow Angie just slipped under her skin like a sweet song melody.

When Ruby realized one fall day while picking apples that she was entirely in love with Mike, she was horrified. How could this happen? Might Mike love her? How could she even ask that? What difference would it make? She wouldn’t hurt Angie for anything – even her own eternal happiness. 

But then something truly terrible happened and Ruby lost her bearings completely. That is how she ended up here on this island in Greece where she knew no one. 

It was a warm and bright autumn afternoon. Ten of their friends were gathered to help pick apples and then stay for dinner and an evening of music. A couple of friends had guitars and Mike would play the harmonica. These were great evening with lots of wine and laughter and dancing. There were lots of rooms in the big farm house and a bunkhouse across the yard, so everyone was safe to play, have fun and then crash for the night.

It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to cast its golden light. The gang were taking turns showering and changing. Mike was still out in the far orchard with the tractor picking up the bins to bring into the cold house. Someone tuned into a playlist and the party mood began to revive tired bodies. Ruby helped Angie bring out long stemmed plastic wine goblets and put them on the table beside the tub of ice stuck with bottles of wine and beer. 

“Where’s Mike?” Angie asked. 

“I’ll go find him” volunteered Ruby and she loped off to get the battered old mountain bike leaning against barn wall that they used for traversing the bumpy roads through and around the orchards. 

Ruby felt the elation of her mission and pedalled hard up the slope that tipped down into the back orchard where Mike had gone. She crested the hill and had begun to let the momentum of the bike take her bouncing down the hill when her eyes saw the overturned tractor and apples spilled all over the ground. The bike fell away from her. She tripped as her feet caught in the pedals trying to get free. She already had momentum began to run as fast as she could. She lost her footing and fell forward scraping knees and hands and chin. She was crying out to Mike.

She was whimpering now. She called out again to Mike. There was only silence shot with birdsong.

But Mike was not okay. When she came to him, he was dead. Pinned under the tractor, his beautiful blue eyes reflected the sky in stillness. A small trickle of blood tipped from the corner of his mouth.

Fully sobbing she dropped to her knees. She wanted to kiss him, breathe him alive, close his eyes, Ruby’s heart slammed in her chest and a voice told her to go back up the hill. Get Angie. No. I don’t want Angie to see this. I don’t want Angie’s heart to shatter.

Ruby found her feet and, like in a dream she passed the bike fallen askew on the hillside and continued up and over the hill. Sometimes she dropped and scrabbling on all fours, feet and hands. She ran through the next orchard and when she was nearly in view of the house she began to wail. 

It was the sound of an animal is excruciating pain. Rarely heard by those who have not witnessed untimely death, but primally unmistakable. Ruby could hardly breathe for the searing in her chest. She saw the others come running. All but Angie. Angie was standing strangely still. She was looking at Ruby and did not move.

Quietly Angie said, “Call an ambulance.”

One of the guys, just passing Ruby, stopped and circled back and said, “I will.” He stood by Angie while he punched in 911 into his mobile.

Ruby was bent over with her hands on her thighs gaining her breath.

She looked up magnetized by Angie’s eyes and even from a distance could see the terror and anguish dawning. She wanted to run to her and kiss her and tell her she loved her and close her eyes. But she could not. She could not go near that pain. It was sharp and jagged and bottomless and hadn’t even begun yet. Ruby knew only too well the shock of sudden and complete loss. The obliteration of hope or happiness or any sense of security now or ever. 

Grief unexpressed is like an aquifer – always there beneath the surface of any rock or solid layer of denial you can heap on it. Instantly Ruby was seventeen. The police asked if there was anywhere she could go that night. She put on a brave face and told them she would go to her aunt in the morning. They asked for her aunt’s phone number and told her that they would ask that she be picked up as soon as possible. The taller officer offered to give her a ride while the other dialled and waited for the sleepy answer. 

“Mrs. Thompson, this is Police Constable Stevens. There has been an accident.”

Ruby didn’t stay to hear the rest of the conversation with her aunt. She turned and went up the stairs to her room. Her whole body tingled with electricity. She didn’t even know if the police left or closed the door or anything. She sat on the edge of her bed and stared at her hands. 

Ruby couldn’t remember her parents’ funeral at all. And in that moment, she knew one thing for certain. She could not be here for Mike’s. She could not be near Angie and the white-hot flame of her pain. No. She could not do that.

Ruby tried to get the key in the ignition in her little VW Polo but her hand could not be stilled. Her whole body was quaking. She took a sobbing breath. The sun was setting as Ruby drove down the long lane of the orchard to the road for the last time, leaving behind bewildered friends.

She got home and packed up a carryon case, left a note for her employer that something had come up and she had to go for a few days. She had to go and would be in touch. She would not go back and so far, she had not been in touch. She signed out of all social media and blocked texts. That was six months ago.

Ruby closed her eyes and leaned her head back to let the spring sun’s fingers stroke her face. Her long dark hair fell over the back of the chair and hung in soft waves, tendrils lifting in the gentle breeze. She held the stone in her hand and closed her fingers around it as if to let it know it belonged to her now.  And that is when it happened. 

Some deep and primal emotion welled up from the depths of her belly, into her solar plexus where it circled anxiously until it found its destination in the middle of her chest. There it stayed like a living thing, fluttering. And then it nestled in the soft pulsing of her heart. Tears thrust their way to her throat and sent her chin quivering and her face crumpling. It throbbed in her soul. Her eyes filled with tears. Tears that felt like gratitude. Gratitude to feel the depth of her sorrow, her love for Angie, her love for Mike. Like witnessing exquisite beauty for the first time lit by such extreme ugliness.

Before Ruby could even fathom this exquisite suffering, a long mournful moan erupted from her soul’s depth and grief spilled forth in tearing gasps of sorrow. 

Still holding tight onto the stone, Ruby wrapped her arms around her stomach as if to hold herself together and rocked forward. No more sound came, but she could not close her mouth. Open in a silent anguished lament, her mouth gaped, saliva trickled and her tears continued to spill into the sea. Her shoulders shuddered in waves of aftershock. Sweet release. And then stillness.

Could she have slept? When Ruby opened her eyes, the sun was floating in an orange splendour above the horizon. She sat up and then stood. Unsteady on her feet, she stepped ankle deep in the cool lapping water. In awe, she noticed that the sunlight dancing on the rippling sea surface was making a path straight to her feet. In that moment she felt seen. She felt real. She felt adored. She felt as if she belonged in this world. And that the world was a safe and beautiful place. Ever evolving, ever expanding. The will to life. The will to beauty.

Like a doctor probing the stomach, “Does this hurt? This?” Ruby tenderly probed the energy of her heart and further out, her solar plexus and then her belly. There was nothing there. No pain. No jack-in-the-box that springs just when you think you are okay “Here I am! Time to suffer!”

Ruby tried on the face of Mike in her mind. She saw his smile and smiled back. She imagined Angie’s face. Not that last time, but across the table clinking wine glasses and laughing together. She needed to tell Angie she loved her. And that now she could be there for her. She tentatively probed the back memory of her mom and dad. A picnic they had when she was little on Centre Island overlooking the Toronto skyline. She remembered the ferry ride and the taste of the egg salad sandwiches and it was good. Ruby smiled.

Ruby looked at the stone in her hand. It was heavier. Like dark matter, Ruby mused. She passed it from her left hand into her right. There was a mark on her left palm. It was red and hot. Ruby waited awhile but it did not cool or fade. 

Ruby decided then and there that she would never let go of this stone. It was definitely magic. She tucked it into the top of her bathing suit where it was deep and secure. She waded into the warm water following the path of the setting sun light shimmering and beckoning her to plunge into the warm sea. 

She wobbled over the small rocks underfoot, nearly losing her balance and then crouched and gently launched herself into the shallow water. Easier to float over the rocks to the smooth sand a little distance out. She floated on her back and made lazy arcs with her arms overhead, watching the drops from her fingers catch prisms of light from the sun. She was transfixed with delight in this beauty right here before her eyes. Just a gift. An everyday available gift of exquisite beauty. The beauty of being alive. And feeling alive. All over.

She rolled onto her front and put her face in the water with just her eyes above, crocodile-like. There across the surface, she could see the colour spectrum from pale celadon green, to aqua to cerulean to deep ultramarine all the way to Athens. The windows of Athens reflected the setting sun like sparkling gems tumbling down from the Acropolis.

Ruby’s life had pivoted once again. It would never again be the same. Everything had shifted. As she did a slow breaststroke to the shore, Ruby realized that there were no goals for her to achieve. No distant horizons to plod toward. There was only now and where she would go from here. Would she go back home? Where was home?

Home is where my stone is, thought Ruby and she reached in to hold it in her palm again. But it was not there.

Out in the aqua waters the stone had fallen gently onto the sandy floor of the sea. High above, the breezes picked up and sent cat whiskers across the surface. This motion above rocked the stone where is began its slow tumbling trail toward the shore. One day, it would catch the eye of a person in solitude, seeking self, along a deserted stretch of beach.