Pulling Secrets from Stones
by Beth Goder
In the lakebed by the mountains slept stones full of secrets. Waiting memories. Dissipating memories. Rachel could feel the hum of them, their longing for closeness, pressing against her as the sun pressed down.
She slid down to the lakebed. Dust rose around her, obscuring her truck by the side of the road. The air stagnated, heavy and dry, baking itself into the earth.
Her memories were dying–the secret ones, the memories that let her touch the sky, the memories of how to cast a branch to find missing things, or summon a flower in her hand. All of her most important memories. Gone.
She pulled a geological survey map from her pack, jostling her water bottle and a squished peanut butter sandwich. Unfolded, the map stretched farther than her arms. Red marks showed where she had searched. Not much of the map was marked–perhaps half an inch.
Rachel hiked until she reached the edge of her last red mark.
She turned over a stone–memory shaped–then cupped it in her hands. Ordinary. The next stone was the same, and the next. The lakebed stretched for miles, with huge cracks like fractals in the dust. Endless.
Stones, stones, stones. None of them memories.
Wind brushed past, and for a moment, Rachel feared that the woman in the mountains had found her. This close to the mountains, the woman could feel the land as if it were her body–the sweep of wind along mountain backs, the plants that thrust themselves through soil, the intrusion of sun into shaded spaces. The woman in the mountains had described this connection to Rachel, back when she had described everything to Rachel. Before the anger. Before the woman had discovered Rachel putting memories into stones. Before the rift that separated them as no mountain could ever do.
When Rachel looked up, only the sun was above her. Her relief was empty. Dry. As much as she feared the woman in the mountains, she wished to see her again.
And Rachel did fear her. The woman was like a crash of rain, an avalanche, soaking everything in her path. Unaware. But Rachel had come to love her wild kindness, her fierceness. The woman would mix the colors of the sunset beautiful and bright. She would send goats to look after the elderly, those who had no children. With a splash of soil and a whisper, she could cure sickness in trees, but never death.
The memory of the woman hung above Rachel like a dark sky, full and treacherous. Waiting.
Waiting as stones waited. Rachel grabbed another stone, rough and rounded. Ordinary.
She pulled the sandwich from her bag, wishing she had packed a more substantial lunch. Somewhere in the lakebed, locked in a stone, sat the secret of spontaneous berry pie. She remembered holding out her hands in the garden, a steaming boysenberry pie appearing among the flowers. But she couldn’t remember how she’d done it, only that once she’d known the secret of it, when the lake was full, when water ran over the stones.
A crow circled overhead, dove, and landed on a boulder. “You’ll never get anywhere that way,” it said.
“No one asked your advice.”
Of course, the only memory she’d found was the one that let her talk to birds. That memory stone was sitting in a bowl of water back at her apartment, submerged so that it would work.
“The way you are searching,” said the crow, “so inefficient. Why did you store your secrets in pebbles?”
“I stored them in the lake.” It was a good place for such memories. When the secret memories rubbed up against the regular ones–how to send a fax at the xerox store where she worked, the amount of coffee to put in the machine, the name of the guy who ran the junkyard–the magic became duller. She couldn’t hold everything in her head.
And the other memories–the secret ones–they would change her if she let them get too close.
The crow shifted from foot to foot. One of its toes was missing. “Call the memories back to you. Call them from the stones. Secrets once yours will find you.”
Rachel shook her head. There was safety in distance. Such a memory would twist through the pathways of her mind, changing what it found there. She could not afford such closeness. She wasn’t like the woman in the mountains.
“Fill the lake with water. Summon the rain,” said the crow, as if such a thing were simple.
“We all want the drought to end. I would have done it already if I could.”
“You insist on being difficult.” The crow picked up a stone in its beak, then tossed it away. “Talk to the woman in the mountains. She’ll know where the rain went.”
“She won’t want to see me.” Rachel grabbed another stone. Ordinary.
“Do not presume to know what the woman in the mountains wants,” said the crow. “If you want your memories back, follow me.”
The crow flew into the sky. It was headed in the direction of Rachel’s truck.
When Rachel got back to her truck, the crow was sitting on the hood. It flapped its wings impatiently.
She patted the Toyota Stout, ignoring the crow. The Stout always made her feel better. Safer. Each part was known to her–valves and pushrods, radiator, gauges–all the parts that pushed against each other, all the parts she’d built into the engine. Solid. Logical.
She leaned into the truck’s sturdy frame.
When she’d found the Stout in the junkyard, Rachel had been taking apart the engine of a Mazda Bongo van, just to see if she could put it back together. Across from the Mazda sat the Stout, just like the one her dad used to drive. The outside was rusted in spots, but it had a strong engine–salvageable. She’d spent her weekends working on it, until it ran right.
The crow hopped to the car door and pecked. “The trip will be easier while the sun is still out.”
“She won’t help me.”
The crow pecked again at the door. “I’ll show you the way.”
She looked to the sky, hoping for rain. In the drought, she’d lost the best part of herself. Rachel had forgotten how to make origami cranes that dispelled heartbreak as they flew over the town. She’d forgotten the location of the singing snakes, and the name for the nettles that could mend anything–a sweater, a bag, a bone.
Rachel climbed into the car and opened the door for the crow.
The mountain road was twisty, unkept, full of potholes. Her truck complained, shaking when it went over rough patches. She could picture the engaged engine–every moving part–almost as if the truck were an extension of her body, almost as if its murmur were her breath.
The crow perched on the passenger’s seat, uncomfortable. It opened its wings, knocking into the stones she kept on the dashboard. Memory-shaped, but without memories. Not yet.
The truck made a bubbling noise. A sign that it was overheated. Not good.
She pulled over to the side of the road and grabbed her tools. The crow perched on her shoulder as she lifted the hood. Before her, the beautiful engine hummed. It was like a living thing, like a beating heart. An old heart. Every part, she’d touched with her hands. Every part knew her.
Steam rose from the truck. She’d have to let it cool off before she examined the engine.
“Bet you wish you had your memories now. The mending nettles would be useful, yes?” said the crow.
“I’d never use magic on the truck.”
She didn’t need magic to repair the Stout. Truck knowledge was a different kind of knowing. As a kid, she’d spent hours working on her dad’s truck. He’d shown her how to salvage the best parts from the junkyard–shown her what was useable, even if it didn’t look pretty, what was truly gone and rotted through. “Take stuff apart. Use the crowbar. Don’t be afraid to get dirty,” Dad had said.
Rachel sat on the side of the road. The crow perched on a stump.
“We’re not so far, now,” it said.
Rachel brushed dirt off her sleeve. “I don’t expect I’ll say much, when we find her.”
“Don’t you have anything left to say?”
Their relationship had been an imperfect thing, complicated by distance, cobbled together through kindness. Mostly, the woman’s kindness.
She had shown Rachel how to find memories–the secret places to look. It was like searching in the junkyard. She had to look underneath to see what was really there, to see the potential of things.
Even after two years, the soreness from their last conversation wasn’t gone. When the woman in the mountains had found the memory stones, she’d been furious. “This is not as I taught you,” she’d said. She’d told Rachel to never come back.
The crow cocked its head, waiting.
“She has a different way,” said Rachel. The woman in the mountains believed magic was like breath, running through all of life. Magic infused her, absorbed her. The memory stones were an abomination, she’d said. Lifeless. Distant.
“Different from your way,” said the crow.
Rachel pointed to the truck. “The Stout, I know how it works–every piece, every part. If something’s not right, I know where to look.”
“And you think magic is different?”
“When the woman in the mountains taught me to pull flowers from my hands, when the roots embedded themselves, when the stems shot up from my skin–” Rachel couldn’t describe how she’d felt–terrified, yes, but alive. The flowers had pulled at her skin, grown from her body, part of her. She hadn’t felt pain, but a pressure. Sunlight on leaves. Wind on petals. “There’s no way to understand how it works.”
“You keep a dangerous distance,” said the crow. “You want to hold a thing without letting it touch you.”
The crow fluttered its wings, then settled. “Not for the woman in the mountains. Do you remember what she taught you?”
“The stones remember.”
“You kept nothing for yourself?” The crow shifted, flexing the foot with the missing toe. Rachel wondered if it could still feel the toe, the place where the toe had been.
She’d kept nothing of the magic. That was gone from her. But there were other memories–ordinary ones, true ones. “I remember flying,” said Rachel. “The mountains were sharp against the sky, but I wasn’t afraid. Not with her.”
“You could fly again. Call the memory to you.”
Rachel thought of secrets bottled in stones. She would not call to them. The crow should not have asked.
The Stout was still steaming, but less now.
Rachel stood up. “The engine should be cool enough.”
She leaned over the truck, hoping for an easy fix. Maybe a leaking hose. She revved the engine and watched the steam slide up. Not a hose–she could tell by following the flow of steam. She inspected the gasket. Not the problem. With trepidation, Rachel examined the radiator.
It was cracked.
She swore and gently closed the hood. They’d made it about three miles up the road, and the lake itself was two miles from town. The sun dipped lower in the sky.
She pulled a sleeping bag out of the truck and secured it to her pack. There was water, but no food. She hadn’t expected to be out so long.
She could turn back, go into town. Come back the next day and repair the truck. Instead, she asked the crow, “How much farther?”
Rachel set out on foot, following the crow as it flew. She hiked for a mile over the winding road, until the crow flew over a side trail.
The trail twisted higher. At some points, it was barely a trail at all, obscured by rocks, covered by fallen trees. Not cleared in years–maybe not ever.
Although Rachel missed flying, it was good to hike.
The sunset lit the sky an intense purple. The crow flew down and perched on her shoulder, heavy. Talons pressed against her, all but the missing one on the left foot. They had to be getting close.
“The woman in the mountains. Can you tell me–” Rachel took a breath. She needed to know if she was forgiven. If there was a chance of forgiveness.
The crow said, “Koww, koww.”
Rachel turned to look at the crow.
The crow cawed, again and again. She couldn’t tell what it was saying. She asked the crow to fly up, to lessen its grip on her shoulder, but it didn’t. It couldn’t understand her either.
She’d lost the ability to talk to birds.
Rachel thought of her memory stone in the bowl of water on her bookshelf. Something must have disturbed it. The cat. Her roommate. The memory couldn’t work out of water.
The crow hopped off her shoulder, agitated. It danced around, pecking at the ground.
“Tell me where she is,” said Rachel.
The crow grew, bulging in odd places. A wing became an arm. Toes grew from talons, one missing.
The crow stood, no longer a crow, but a woman.
The woman in the mountains.
Her hair had changed since Rachel had last seen her–it had grown longer, more wild. The hair wove around the woman, braiding itself, clothing her. She was smaller than Rachel remembered. And her eyes were harsher, dark blue and intense.
“Now we can speak properly,” the woman said.
But Rachel couldn’t speak. She wanted to ask forgiveness. She wanted to argue. Rachel had forgotten the wildness of the woman. Quick breath. Fierce smile. That smile sang of the world the woman had introduced–a world of possibilities and rawness, a world of secrets. The words Rachel did not say fell heavy like the air around her, charged and compressed.
At last, Rachel said, “Your toe.”
“Gone,” said the woman.
“What is one toe, when I have the mountains, and the little streams that run through? The plants that weave over rocky soil. The sky. The sun that presses down.”
“You didn’t have to hide.” Rachel thought of the crow perched on her shoulder, its talons pressing into her. Stolen closeness.
“I wanted to see if you were the same,” said the woman.
“I haven’t changed.”
“No, you are so frightened of change. So frightened that you trap secrets in stones.” The woman cast a stone into the air. It burst into dust. “A lake is not a place for secret memories. Now it is dry. Full of nothing, not even water.”
Rachel thought of the landscape, dry where once it had been green. She imagined animals and people looking up to the sky, hoping for rain. “I never meant for that to happen.”
“A drought is caused by many things. Only some blame falls on you.”
“But you still blame me,” said Rachel. “For everything.”
“When I showed you how to find these secrets, I did not know you would hide them. I did not know you would be so afraid.”
“I can’t do what you ask of me.” The memories had a wildness to them, elements Rachel couldn’t control.
“You must choose,” the woman said. “The stones cannot live in the lake. You must take the memories as your own, or not at all.”
As she spoke, the woman opened her hands. Two flowers grew, poking up through her skin. The flower in her right hand became larger, blue. The flower in her left hand red and glossy.
Rachel looked at her own hands, where no flowers grew. She looked to the mountains and the wild sky. “I can’t become like you.”
“You would give up magic? And for what? A life you do not like? Your old truck that doesn’t run?”
Rachel thought of the Stout, the engine she had labored on so long, the way all the pieces fit together to make something greater.
Rachel clasped the woman’s hands, bringing the flowers together. The stems twined and grew, latching onto Rachel’s skin, weaving her to the woman. The flowers merged and became as purple as the sky.
“To build an engine–it’s not magic, but it’s not an ordinary thing,” said Rachel. The flowers twined around her arms. “It’s somewhere in between.”
“For you, it’s not an ordinary thing.”
“If I take the memories, they will change me,” said Rachel.
“You’ll be as I am.”
“Not as you are. But not the same.”
“Change is constant,” said the woman. A new flower crept up to the sun. “You were changed the moment I found you in the junkyard, turning over engines to learn their secrets. You were changed by all the moments in your life before, and all the moments after. Do not be afraid of change. Bite it. Take the secrets between your teeth. Learn. Pull the memories to you.”
Rachel stood with the woman, twined to her, the whisper of flower pulling at her arms. The flowers grew and bloomed, twisted and branched. The sun sunk lower in the sky, until purple became darkness. But still, Rachel did not pull the memories to herself.
“Will I see you again?” asked Rachel.
The flowers disappeared. The woman became a crow.
“Koww, koww,” said the crow. “Koww, koww.”
Rachel thought of her memories, trapped in stones, trapped where they should not be. She thought of flying through the evening sky, before the night had brought darkness, and the closeness of the wind. The weight of flowers on her hands. The crush of memory, a gentle wildness that pressed against her, but which she’d never held.
Tentatively, she pulled on the memory stone in her apartment, the secret language of birds.
The memory pried itself from the stone. Unbottled. Free. She could feel its pulse, like a new heart. It flew to her, over the dry lakebed, over the mountains. Home.
The memory submerged in her mind, awoken, alive.
The language twisted her mouth into odd shapes. Her thoughts reformed to speak in the language of birds–a mess of hunting, open sky, the night which leads to home or death.
With closeness came understanding, of a sort. But her heart was still a human heart. Undiminished. She felt as she had when flying. Unafraid, despite height and distance, despite the infinite sky.
“Will I see you again?” asked Rachel in the language of birds.
The crow who was not a crow flew up into the sky. The map in Rachel’s pack leapt out and unfolded itself. A new symbol appeared, marking a spot in the mountains–two flowers twined together. A location. An offering. A way to find the woman again.
Rachel gathered up the map, then hiked down the trail until she found a sheltered space. The language of birds sang in her head, raw and wild, a part of her.
Miles down the road, the Stout waited for her, its radiator still cracked. Tomorrow, she would go to the junkyard and get what she needed to repair her truck.
Behind her, rainclouds loomed, blotting out the stars. A storm was coming.
About the Author
Beth Goder works as an archivist, processing the papers of economists, scientists, and other interesting folks. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape Pod, Analog, Clarkesworld, Nature, and Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. You can find her online at bethgoder.com.
About the Narrator
Kat is a queer Greek/Serbian SFF writer, film critic, and podcaster based in London, UK. Her novel-in-progress about a secret society of Swedish superheroes was shortlisted for the London Writers Awards in 2019, and she was a juror for the Best Non-Fiction category in the 2020 British Fantasy Awards. She organises Spectrum, the largest critique group for SFF writers in the UK, and is one of the podcast editors at Strange Horizons magazine. Her day job is in theatre.