From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Stem, Stone, and Bone

From the time Jacinta was a little girl, toddling after her mother’s strong steps, she had worked in the cacao groves. As the beetles hatched out of the gourd-like growths on the sides of the gently swaying trees, Jacinta learned to catch them by the handful in her left palm. A stiff blade attached to her right thumb swiped with increasing deftness as the years went by, striking the frail legs and proboscises off the cacao beetles and giving a sharp crack to the broader ends of their shells, the crack that rendered them lifeless and as still as the beans that everyone outside the Shining City on the northern coast of Venezuela thought they were.

But late at night, when the adults had cracked open the thick, hard shells and poured out the fat drops of black blood they fermented into wine, after they had gone silly with laughter and tears, Jacinta and the other children would slink out into the fields and capture the smallest of the beetles—the ones that had slid through their fingers at harvest—and trace mazes into the dirt for the beetles to race against each other for their prize: the sweet, clear moisture from the limelichens that grew from the rocks at their feet.

The youngest of the children was Xoch, and he would always be the youngest, except for the stones. Even as they outgrew beetle games and wore the weight of each new year’s harvest on their adolescent, then adult backs, Xoch was the baby, much to his chagrin.  Jacinta envied him, as she struck the legs off of a cacao beetle with her woman’s broad hands. He, at least, was someone. Something. The last of the children born in the Shining City, the glistening paradise that had risen again after the oil and ore had died.

Jacinta, however, was nothing but Jacinta, a woman and a worker who could couple with the city men or a visiting stranger, and at the end of nine months, out of her belly would drop nothing but a stone. She’d done it only once, before forsaking the company of men entirely. Nine months of hope and discomfort followed by the wretched agony of a rock the size of a cacao pod ripping her insides outward to lie bloody on the end of her bed. Once was enough.

Stem into bone, bone into stone, stone into stem. That was the way her world worked. Not the rest of the world, Jacinta had come to be sure, but in the city that glistened with steel and lime in the sun, life was what it was. The Mineral Men had turned their backs on oil and ore, proclaiming that the region had once been the chocolate capital of the world, that it would be again.

They’d said they had magic. They were crazy old men.

But their magic, or maybe their craziness, worked. The next crop of cacao beans didn’t wait to have the pods cut down—they ruptured in a milky stream of beetles straight from the tree. The Mineral Men gathered them with their own hands, just the once, and cut their legs and cracked their shells and fermented and roasted and ground until they had a single bar, more precious than gold. Everyone in the city remembered the day the gold bar was proclaimed a success; it was the day Marisela gave birth to the city’s first child of stone.

After that there was no pretending things hadn’t changed. Seeds became beetles; leaf-pods became fat caterpillars creeping blindly on the wind. They floated gently to the ground and wrapped themselves in mud until their wing-branches unfurled and stretched into creeping trees. Stones broke down into seeds when cracked, or grew limelichens when left alone. Limelichens that glistened in the sun. People forgot whatever names the cities of the region once had. Collectively, they became the Shining City, the city of flowing chocolate and growing stone. The wheel had shifted: stone into stem, stem into bone, bone into stone.

Yelping dogs gave birth to something resembling agates, and large chunks of jasper ringed the fields in spring, but instead of even mildly precious, cuttable, tumbleable gems, the human mothers gave birth to plain rock. Rock that was jagged and painful and grew up into nothing at all; rock the foreign traders looked at and then didn’t look again as they paid the price for the precious cacao beans.

Beans, not beetles. No one outside the Shining City knew, because no one wanted or needed to know. So for most of Jacinta’s life, because she needed something to do and she needed the money that came from doing it, she had blistered her animal body in the sun, transforming beetles into beans. She bought herself an apartment high up in the Shining City, even though it meant a longer walk to the groves each morning. She loved the feel of the cool air, still tasting of night, how it ran up her nose and down the back of her throat. The air was still air and the water was still water. The sun was still sun and the moon, though ever-changing, was always the same moon. She could depend on them.

Xoch was already in the cacao grove when she arrived one morning. He stared up at a pod that quavered slightly in a tree. Tattoos in the shape of mushrooms with multifaceted heads peered out from the collar of his shirt; flowers in the shape of mountains jutted out from the edges of his sleeves. He caught Jacinta looking and adjusted his clothing so the ink was covered again.

“This one’s about to hatch. Will you help me catch it?” he asked.

No one else was around yet, so Jacinta pulled her blade out of her pocket and strapped it to her thumb. The beetles usually didn’t hatch until the morning sun beat steadily on their cocoons—Jacinta couldn’t help thinking of the pods that way—but Xoch was right. This one looked ready.

“Why flowers that become mountains?” she asked him.

He glanced at her blankly, then turned his attention back to the pod.

“Your tattoos,” she said.

The blank look remained on Xoch’s face, but Jacinta could see that it was pasted there, and not very firmly at that.

“What? You wish we had gone the other direction? That maybe we would wait here for the cacao plants to drop stones while a thorny vine tore its way out of my—”

Jacinta chocked back her own anger, not knowing how near to her throat it had been. The stones were bad, but there were worse things than stone. At least it had seemed to be stillborn, not like the reptilian baby hyacinth-things that crept up to her windows from the flower shop at night and scratched on the glass with thorny claws.

The look on Xoch’s face tightened, but she thought he cast her a momentary look of sympathy. He had probably fathered his own share of stones.

“This will stop,” he said in a whisper, just as the pod broke open and a rain of beetles covered in milky fluid cascaded down.

For the next hour, Jacinta was too busy catching, striking, catching, and striking the cacao beetles to wonder if Xoch believed what he said, or if he was just speaking because it was all he had left to do.

Other workers came and filled the grove, all the groves along the coastline, as one by one the pods burst open and the milk-covered beetles escaped. In the early years, the children had scrambled to gather the beetles that escaped the first catching, but now there was no one young and lithe and low enough to the ground to do all of that. The adults still tried, but more and more beetles escaped.

That was when Jacinta heard talk among the Mineral Men of bringing in new children. She didn’t know where they would get children from, but the thought made her sweat more than the day’s heat warranted, and she looked over at Xoch and saw that he, too, had heard. Anger was there on his face, but hope, too, whispered in his eyes. Hope was on the faces of many workers in her area. New children, new life. But not new life of their own, and eventually, after enough time among them, the outsiders would be turned by the spell’s wheel. It had happened to the stray dogs that wandered into town. Jacinta knew that if the children ever came, one day she would see more young women ripped apart by stones, bloodied on their beds, swaddling their lumpy offspring in a futile effort to bring meaning to the pain.

She almost marched over to the Mineral Men right there and slapped their faces. She had never wanted to more, though the thought occurred to her every time they came to visit the groves. But the demand for Venezuelan chocolate was high, bringing in far more than the oil ever had. The rest of the world saw rich green trees and the workers being paid fair wages, and congratulated themselves for indulging in a treat that made the planet a better place. Jacinta wanted to spit cacao liquor in their faces. All of them.

She felt as though her own body was turning to stone, but that wasn’t how it worked. The wheel only turned toward the future, not the past.

“I don’t want to go backward,” said Xoch one day.

She hadn’t spoken to him in weeks. There wasn’t much talk in the cacao fields at all, though sometimes, when they weren’t too depressed—or even more often, perhaps, when they were—someone would start to sing, and the rest would pick it up and carry it along. This day had been quiet. It took Jacinta a while to realize Xoch had spoken to her, and that he had meant her comment about his tattoos.

“They aren’t magic,” he said. “Not like the Mineral Men did. They’re for balance. To remind me that I’m all three: bone, stone, and stem.”

“Like hell you are. You’re a man. Bone,” said Jacinta.

And though she hadn’t meant to, hadn’t felt it in years, a heat crept into her face, and then her thighs, as she looked at him and realized it was true: he was a man, and strong, and for all the time that had passed, still fairly young.

“Don’t look at me that way, girl,” he said.

She looked at him harder, forcing even more fire into her gaze than she really felt. “Don’t call me ‘girl,’ ” she said.

He stalked off and Jacinta went back to work, but she had noticed a look in Xoch’s eyes, especially as they passed down her body; eyes that weren’t as flat as stone, that spoke more than he told, that said he wasn’t as disinterested as he claimed. That was good. Not for Xoch; Xoch was nothing but the youngest child in the Shining City. It was good for her.

#

Two days later, Jacinta went to talk to the Mineral Men. They hid in their offices in the Shining City most days, and they smoked strong cigars late at night in the outdoor cafes, handing out chocolates to the beautiful turistas who gave the candy more attention than the men. Tourist season was nearing its low—it never really went away—and the Mineral Men would be very frustrated by now. She would be sweeter to them than the finest chocolate in the world, confections that might as well be bricks after being passed from their hands all day.

She had passed a salon on her way home, and had scrubbed and painted and practiced for two days until her hair piled on her head in a reasonable imitation of the glossy styles in the windows. Her eyes promised mystery and excitement from behind thick lines of kohl. Her breath was sweetened on mintmeats, and an opaline gem carved from the egg of an oilbird rested at her throat. It had been her mother’s last gift to her, many years ago. Before her attempts to give Jacinta a brother or sister to care for had torn her tenderest flesh from bone.

Jacinta swallowed her thoughts and stepped through a doorway adorned with opulent gemstones born of the local bird population that dwindled with each passing year. She hardly noticed their gaudy sheen. She sat quietly in the waiting room and refused to go away when the Mineral Men’s assistant scolded her. She waited, trying to keep from poking at the uncomfortable upsweep of her hair, trying not to rub her tired face and ruin her painted eyes. She kept waiting for the Mineral Men to come out of their offices and speak to her. The assistant called security, but the security men laughed at him. If he needed their help with a skinny young woman—too skinny for their tastes, they were quick to tell—then perhaps he should take it up with his Mineral Masters, and they could turn her into a bird and place her in a crystal cage.

They said this with bravado, but their eyes slid around the Mineral Men’s doors, and they grew quiet and left Jacinta and the assistant alone. Finally, because he had been brought up to be helpful, and because there seemed nothing else to been done, the assistant turned to the silent woman.

“Would you like a glass of water?”

Jacinta’s lips parted slowly, and she would have liked to say “yes,” but her throat tightened and she simply shook her head “no.” The no wasn’t for him; it was for the world that was all too much, for beetles that should have been beans and brothers who should not have been stones. The Mineral Men left their offices, finally, as the sky began to turn colors of fire. They looked at her curiously as they passed. They looked at the assistant, who shrugged. They waited for her to say something, but her tongue felt like sand in her mouth, and wouldn’t let her speak.

You are a man. Bone.

Xoch was a man, but they were not. She would not be able to seduce them into spilling their secrets with their seed. She was not going to be the Shining City’s savior. She was nothing but Jacinta, a worker and a woman, who had spent her whole life among the beetles and the groves.

And yet I give birth to stone, she thought.

She rose to her feet silently as the assistant turned out the lights. He held the door open for her, and she passed out into the night, breathing the air that she forgot to be glad was unchanging, ignoring the exchange of sun for moon.

The next morning, she was back in the cacao grove. Her feet took her there as the sun came up, and there was Xoch, with his wishful tattoos, and she wanted to be angry with him—for being the youngest, for not being stronger, or maybe for being stronger than she was, for being what she wanted herself to be. But all she saw was a sad and lonely man, hiding the tattoos that cried to understand what had happened to the world he had barely come to know before it had turned.

The wheel only went forward. With two more turns, would it bring them back to the way things had been? She doubted even the Mineral Men knew. Their eyes had been flatter than stones. Flat like coins, with only a dull glint of half-extinguished greed in the light.

A fat cacao beetle crawled on a stick near Jacinta. Her first instinct was to crack it and scrape it as she had always done. But it was fatter than any she had ever seen, and it turned toward her hand as she reached for it, and it seemed to reach back for her with its whiskery legs. She let it crawl onto her palm, then inspected the stick it had been on more closely. Real wood, fallen from a cacao tree that, of course, had grown up before the turning. Its texture was similar to that of the beetle’s. She stroked the creature’s carapace and set it on the ground.

The chocolate trade had created the Shining City, but the Mineral Men must have known it would fall. They, too, were unable to have children, and though they spoke again of bringing in others, from somewhere, they muttered and whispered and shook their heads at themselves. Even they could not bring themselves to turn more children into stone. Even they knew that when the cacao trees died, there would be no more to replace them. So they counted their riches and kept on counting. They gave to the workers because they had no one else to give to, and the world turned but the wheel stayed still.

Jacinta picked up the beetle again, too fat to have escaped very far. She cracked it lifeless and split the brown body open and let its blood spill out onto a stone. Her stone. She had always known where it was, though she told herself all the stones looked the same. The smell of the cacao blood on warm stone brought a sting to her eyes. The rock that was made of her body and the once-wishful whispers of her soul drank in the sun’s warmth and held it close. The other stones, the other corpses of her city’s future, seemed to sing with the rising heat of the morning, the time when cacao pods burst open and tanagers pushed jade eggs out of their nests. She sat beside her daughter stone and cried, wishing that the blood and the tears would somehow reawaken the life she thought she’d once had.

They didn’t. Her rock continued to hum with heat, and she noticed the sheen of limelichens beginning to grow on it. Were these her grandchildren? She laughed without humor and called herself “abuela” and tossed the emptied carapace away. No, she would not save the Shining City. Maybe the agate-breeding dogs would, one day. Maybe Xoch and his melancholic mushrooms would. She, Jacinta, was going to have another stone. Maybe this one would be round in her belly and smooth like the oilbird eggs. Maybe it would be pretty enough to keep. Or maybe it would be ugly enough and she would love it anyway because she wasn’t expecting a baby; she wanted what she could have. Something heavy and dirty and real.

She felt a rise of warmth again when she thought of Xoch and the look in his eyes when she had called him “bone,” but none of the men she knew would willingly father the only kind of child she could bear. She pinned up her hair again and painted her eyes and swept into the Shining City’s streets. The men there were rough-voiced and soft-fingered, nothing like the silent workers in the fields, but she watched and she waited. She wanted to choose the right one.

There was a man whose eyes glittered like the twists of banded mica that hatched from milk snake eggs. A shining beau for the Shining City? No, he was not the man for her. Instead, she chose one with soft green eyes, like the stems of the grasses that still grew to the south, out beyond the border of where the mineral spell faded. She knew. She had walked far into the night, as they all had, when she needed to see young things that were born and grew as they should. Baby birds with wide-open jaws and spotted tapir calves first gaining their feet. She dared not get too close, lest the Mineral Men’s spell be carried on.

The green of the grass looked back at her through the face of the pale-skinned man. His hands were pliant and stained with nicotine, a dusting of yellow on sunburnt white, like a pollen stain on a speckled orchid. She sat in the bar for three nights before he was brave enough to speak. Then, he bought her a drink. She lowered her eyes and smiled a small smile, letting the heat of her need strengthen the color of her dark cheeks, letting him think it was shyness that sent the blush there.

She drew him into one of the midtown hotels. . . not too fancy, but not low enough he would think she was for sale. She spoke to him in a language he only haltingly understood, saying words that would have made no sense even if he had. No, sweet, you are untouched by the wheel. Yes, you will make a fine stone. He was cautious, of course. She smiled and took the rubber sheath from his hand and placed it on him, but not before gently slashing it with the thumb-blade he didn’t know she wore. He didn’t notice. Instead, he looked at her and told her she had lips of ruby and breasts of golden marble and eyes of jet. He spread his pollen-stained hands over her and she sighed as the cut sheath slid in, thinking only of the stone to come, imagining his hands were wide leaves caressing her in the wind.

When he left her in the waning night, she pretended to sleep through his groans of regret and apology. She curled over on her side and held her belly in one hand, wondering if his seed turned to stone as it quickened her egg, or if its animal properties were absorbed slowly, like food. She wondered how her blood knew to collect itself as dust, to divide into granite or sand instead of organ and flesh.

As the weeks passed and her belly grew heavier, Jacinta sang in the groves and the streets and the fields, even when the other workers did not. She sang popular songs from the radio and the lullabies her mother used to croon. She sang loudly and terribly and let the other people stare at her in fury and in hope and in pain. When her belly grew too heavy to let her move freely, she lay in bed and Xoch brought her food, as she had known he would. He was the youngest, after all, the baby of the Shining City. The city had cared for him, and he paid it back in kind. He didn’t interrupt her as she sang, but once, he reached out to her swollen belly and felt the hard lump inside. Then his face closed down and he shook his head, and the next day someone else came with Jacinta’s tray of food. The woman didn’t speak, just set the tray down, and when Jacinta was finished, she cleared it away.

The pains began in the midmorning heat, as Jacinta had suspected they would. She broke and she bled as she pushed her stone out, sweating and crying and keening alone. Alone but for the child that wasn’t even a child.

Her stone was smooth and almost perfectly round, just a little longer in one direction than the other. It was smooth enough not to tear her as it slid out from inside, but it was still stone, not soft and pliable like an animal child. It broke her pelvis as it passed through her, an audible scraping crack of stone on bone.

The pain was unreal. I am not real, Jacinta thought as the stone passed through. A mottled green like bloodstone with a speckling of red-crusted white bone caught her eye as she looked down, floating through her cracked and battered self as if she were clear as water. With what little strength she had, she reached out to touch her baby, because a baby it was, to her. She was surprised to feel that already the limelichens were growing on one side of the stone. Beneath her hand, they grew more quickly than she’d ever seen, for only a moment, then dried up and fell away. “Nieta?” she whispered.

But stones didn’t give birth to plants. They were too much a part of the Mineral Men, who would never give birth to anything but the Shining City, and that through others’ hands. Stones never gave birth to anything. They broke down, dissolved, became dirt.

And they cried. Dissolution into limelichens that glistened in the light. Tears for the loss of the cities before they became Shining, for the young milk snake micas that would never slither across the ground, for the cacao beetles that were bled and ground into paper dollars and gold coins, and for the woman who chose to love them for what they were—hard and unturning and unloving, and warm only when they were touched by the sun.

Deb Taber is a writer and editor lurking in the Pacific Northwest. Her story “The Summoning of Spirits Too Far From Home” appeared in Fantasy Magazine in October of 2008, and she has previous publications in Apex Digest and Shadowed Realms. Forthcoming work includes stories in the Art From Art anthology (Modernist Press) and the Dark Futures anthology (Dark Quest Books). She is the senior editor of Apex Publishing’s book division, and while her personal website is a work in very slow progress, it will arrive someday at www.inkfuscate.com.