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Short story by Primoz Cibej

When you are a child, you never notice these things.

It was the same with us. All we cared for was play and whatever it was we were chasing through the forest and across the clearing. Our worn shoes sometimes stepped onto the stones just so that we could pounce after the item of interest at the time. Other times we simply jumped across the stones or we ran straight down the middle. We were careless and without a thought to spare for the lying stones.

Yet no matter how insignificant they were, the stones were always there. Overgrown by the green grass or moss during wintertime, they lay dormant. They did not disturb our play. Perhaps we didn’t bother them either. Perhaps our footsteps reminded them of long-gone dances and the footsteps which our kin have long ago forgotten.

It might also be that our cries and shrieks reminded them of songs which we have lost to time. One after the other, the voices and the footsteps left and the stones remained alone until the day they felt the approaching footsteps and the joyous shrill voices of children once again.

Can you imagine what the stones must have felt when we first ran past them? Nothing, I know. Of course. They are, after all, just stones. What could something so cold and abandoned have felt when we rushed past like swallows? We never noticed them and they paid us no mind. A status quo upheld for centuries ever since the first of the stones must have fallen.

When we got older, just old enough to start noticing things, we began to notice one another. We began to notice how she and he looked so inviting when spring came and we noticed how the bottle of whiskey was not a sin so long as Mom and Dad didn’t see us. And, purely by accident, sitting next to a roaring hearth, I took notice of just how beautifully your eyes start to glimmer when the embers are flung from the dancing flames. And as we did our best to talk, we took notice of how conversation took form within and between ourselves – in the shape of a circle.

And so it was that with a bottle of Grandfather’s reserve in hand, while seeking refuge from our elders so that we could converse in peace like civilised people, we took notice of just how neatly the stones were arranged on the grassy clearing. Perfect for conversation – and perfect to light a fire in the middle. Two compulsory components of any evening which held promise of the unspoken and the unallowed.

The organisation went smoothly. The clearing was in the middle of a dense forest, far away from the jurisdiction of those who had gifted us with life and those who came before them. It also meant that no distant travel was needed to gather the logs for the pyre which grew after less than a day’s work. We gathered twigs and lumber, arranging them into a soaring bonfire which was taller than some of the girls. Our own tower of Babel to spite the parents – to prove that we were above their ingenuity in preventing us from drinking like fully grown men and women.

With that rebellious principle burning in our chests, the bonfire was built. Someone brought blankets to lay over the stones so that we wouldn’t have to sit upon their old, cold surface. Another brought their battered guitar. Battered yet functional, and that was all that mattered. Everyone chipped in when it came to assembling enough drinks to last the night. Someone was even gifted with such foresight that they brought with them two woven baskets full of bread and cheese which could be spared (or nicked from the pantry without anyone noticing too soon). And someone turned up with enough candles to light the way through the forest, in case someone got lost when they went to take a leak, or they were running late for the party nobody would ever want to miss out on.

On that day, winter turned to spring. And it ushered each and every single one of us towards the gathering.

We arrived in groups of three or four. We followed the trail of lit candles and lanterns, some of them extinguished by the occasional gust of wind. We lit them up with matches again and continued, everyone gathering around the bonfire.

As our group came out of the forest and into the clearing, I turned around to check if anyone was coming right after us. What I saw was a forest of lanterns, dancing like blazing fairies in the distant, long trail between the trees. And these fairies had guided us here, all of us. As if the fairies themselves were convening after so long to once again bear witness to a gathering amidst the stones. Do you think the stones were smiling? Or perhaps the fairies were?

What was certain was that we were all smiling. You can blame it on the number of gathered bottles, some of them already opened and being passed around. You can even blame it on the fact that someone knew how to play all the songs we knew how to sing. We didn’t, really. Some of us knew half of the lyrics. Others knew just the refrains. And then some just occasionally shouted words they remembered from long ago. None of us were certified singers, and yet we began our celebration as an impromptu chorus, displaced from the cold pavement of a church quire and placed between the stones in the woodland clearing.

Perhaps it was then for the first time in centuries that sacred songs broke free of the marble constraints and fled back to where they had emerged from. Detached from the world, we sang the songs which came to be here. We forgot about what kind of music each of us listened. We didn’t really want to sing that anyway. Few of us knew how to rap and it’s awfully difficult to play electronic dance music on a worn-out acoustic guitar.

So the guitar player plucked the strings and played the songs we’d listen to when the elders gathered around to sing. Be it during holidays or dark winter evenings, when those we would call old met and had a few drinks too many, they would always start to sing. We neverpaid those songs any attention. Much like we never paid any attention to the stones. Yet the songs were always there. As were the stones.

And these always present songs came pouring out of our mouths, gathered somewhere in the far reaches of our lungs and hearts, each line written across a different vein full of blood. The same blood that we shared with our elders who sang. And now we shared their songs. Or rather, we took those songs and made them our own. Perhaps this is what tradition is all about. Taking from others what has always been yours since the day you were born.

Before we knew it, we were all singing. And before we knew it, we were all drunk, just like the elders whenever they sang. I remember vividly the few seconds it took me to register that someone had accidentally bumped into me. I was shocked at how unresponsive my body had become. I sat down and slammed one fist against the other. Nothing. Not a nerve stirred to life. I lifted my hand and slammed it down against the cold stone upon which I was sitting. And suddenly, I felt something surge through my bones, digging itself into my marrow and my blood. I was drunk, so it must’ve surely been just my physiology telling me to stop hurting myself. Advice which I refused to heed far too often during the coming years of my life. So I stood up, nearly jumping to my feet when I noticed how easy it was to move. I noticed how warm I felt.

I noticed her eyes somewhere left of the bonfire. She was standing next to the lit pyre and it seemed as if her hair was dancing with the flames. Crimson locks of untamed youth, eager to join the roaring fire. Looking back at it now, that’s what I noticed. But at the time, all I thought I noticed was the basket with a few bottles of alcohol in it.

With a goal set, I made my way carefully around the sitting people, the standing people and the lying stones. The basket was right there and I thought that if I didn’t get at least a few more glasses of something potent in me that night, I might die, or worse – sober up.

I managed to stumble up to her. She stood in front of the basket and she noticed me approaching past the warming bonfire. I blinked at least five times before I noticed her smiling. So I smiled back, in hopes of getting to the drinks as quickly as possible.

In a few awkward motions, I pointed down toward the basket, grinning at her in an apologetic fashion. She tilted her head to the side and her neck seemed to catch fire as the flames were reflected upon her skin. She was sweating. I must have been sweating too and not just from the flames’ proximity. She reached down, grabbed one of the bottles and lifted it up to our faces. And there, she wiggled it invitingly. It was then that I understood exactly how dogs feel when you shake a stick at them before you throw it.

But there was something else I took notice of. It was how her facial features changed shape within the whiskey. The nearby fire cast an eerie shadows’ play within the bottle and the more I looked, the more I saw her eyes grow sharper. The flames and the whiskey offered sight beyond what my drunken eyes could see.

And through the soft brown lens of the whiskey, I saw her change shape. All I could see was within the whiskey. Her gentle smile twisting into a grin full of fangs. Her wild hair rising like hackles. Her fingers bloom into claws and her eyes turn from blue to amber. For a split moment, I thought I saw a reflection of the moon in the whiskey, just above her. But the moon was painted red and her eyes shone like gold.

But then she lowered the bottle and my eyes were met with blue ones. And red hair. And soft, pale skin which came closer and closer as she began uncorking the bottle.

“So, who are you?” she asked.

Truthfully, I replied, “I don’t know anymore.”

The rest of that night is history. It feels as if I woke up the next morning yesterday. It feels as if part of that night, of that place, attached itself to me. It completed some part within me which I didn’t even know existed. For a brief spell, it made me feel whole. It should come as no surprise then that I returned to the circle decades later, when I felt most broken.

I returned to the stones partly because I wanted to be alone and partly because I hoped that I could find some part of me to repair myself once again. I paced across the clearing, hoping that there was something there that could help me. But the bonfire had burnt away. The baskets had been carried home. The alcohol had been drunk. The cheese and bread eaten. Nothing remained. Nothing at all, until I bumped my foot against it. Only the stones remained.

They were there still, as they have always been. Lying low and forgotten, just as I felt at the time. When I asked you if you could tell what the stones felt, I said they naturally felt nothing. But in that moment, I empathised with them. My fingers hooked around the worn, coarse edges of a stone. I pulled and shoved and after nearly breaking my back, I sat with my back against the standing stone. Just one, but it was a start. If nobody was there to pull me up, then at least I would be there to pull the stones back up.

To someone who’s never done it, hauling stones might sound like the most trivial task. So miniscule and primitive. Those people might also be unaware of just how much stone happens to weigh and just how unwilling it can be to cooperate. But I didn’t care at the time. Like it or not, I was going to push them up again. Maybe if I hadn’t resisted help so much back then, someone would’ve been able to pull me up as well.

I pushed and pulled. Each stone was my own personal condensed journey to Golgotha with its weight burdening my shoulders. I must’ve ruined every piece of clothing I had on me that day, knees scraping against the ground, shoulders grinding across the jagged rocky surface. But I didn’t care. It was my blood that had raised these stones ages ago and it would be the same blood which would help them be raised high and proud again.

When I finally managed to lift the last one of them, I must’ve looked flagellated in body – but not spirit. My spirit swelled within me with each heartbeat as I knelt amidst the standing stones. All of them proud and mighty, like they had been when the blood of which mine is but an echo danced and sang between then. And echo to echo, I felt my all resonate within the standing stone chamber. They stood once again.

I stood up in the centre of the standing stones, catching my breath when I caught a glimpse of it all with the corner of my eye again. The distant fairy lights hiding in the forest shadows. The gentle whispers of a song upon the wind. And most of all, I once again caught sight of those feral eyes. Those two amber moons of youthful abandon, drawn forth from a memory which I’d long ago forgotten.

And just before the memory faded and the forest was but a forest once again, I saw her fangs smile at me again. And I smiled back before I finally knew the answer to the question which she had posed all those years ago.

I am these stones and I am the blood which I inherited.

I am right here.

Originally published in Issue XIX in December 2019.