Birthing Stones

 

Along cornfields, past woods, across creeks, Francisco led the villagers to the birthing stones. Large boulders, christened by him as the mothers, covered the crest of the ridge on the rocky landscape of Serra da Senhora da Freita.

The Sunday excitement was so high that Mass was prayed on the trail while the rosary of people following Francisco trekked beneath dawn’s first rays. The villagers could have been his goats, but for the prayers echoing against the rising escarpment. Prayers far louder than the tinkle of livestock bells.

Francisco had been criss-crossing the range since he was a child. First, accompanying his cousins and the herds of sheep, later, on his own with his goats.

In the height of summer, he climbed the top ridges. Ridges as familiar as the knuckles on his hand. He filled his shepherding days playing his fife, imitating the wind, the black birds and any creature that caught his fancy. At night he joined his herd in their wild beds of furze, tucking between the furry bodies to sleep.

“The mother-stones have been giving birth, pushing small stones out of their wombs, since the beginning of time,” Francisco informed the stupefied villagers who clustered around him. “You are standing in the birth place of the world.”

The villagers stared at the small iridescent stones cradled like oysters in the pouch-like notches of mother-stones. Once the men, women and children had satisfied their first curiosity, and being tired and hungry from the long trek, they dispersed for lunch. Florindo Ramos and the more reverent villagers, fearing

the powers in the mighty stones, picnicked farther away on the meadow, an olive stone’s spit from the creek. Ti Clemente and the more adventurous placed blankets over the boulders, improvising tables for curd cheese, corn bread and wine.

After the meal, the children, attracted by the stones’ layers of sediment that resembled golden scales, rushed to collect the oyster-shaped babies. On the laps of the mother-stones the children saw indentations, pouch-like notches where the birthed stones had leaped to life. Puzzled, they tried to return the newborn stones to the their mother’s arms. The young were enthralled in this task until they were dragged away in tears when the sun faded that evening.

Francisco played his fife, leaning on a mother-stone, one foot tapping. He smiled at his dog busily swinging its tail to the melody. Through the corner of his eye he watched the men distance themselves from the children’s racket, meandering towards other outcrops of stones. They paced, hands in their pockets, curiously

kicking at the boulders. Correia poked around with his stethoscope trying to hurry the birthing process, “Needs that extra little push, I can tell,” Correia said, returning the stethoscope to his pocket. Animated discussions followed. The men waited anxiously for stones to leap from the wombs. They dreamed of catching them in mid-flight, “Better luck if they don’t touch the ground,” Mayor Ressaca voiced. Slowly, Ti Clarissa and the other women, tired of the young treading on their heels, trickled into the men’s company and observed, arms crossed over bosoms.

“Leave them in peace. They’ve survived without your help for all these years,” said Ti Clarissa, grimacing at Ti Clemente, her husband. The men ignored her. She slid her hand, caressing ever so lightly the contour of a baby stone’s head. She picked up one stone and held it to her chest.

Ti Clemente, rubbing his callused hands together, gathered courage and climbed onto the top of a mother-stone. A long whistle of awe was heard. Other men joined him.

From atop the mother-stone, the view reached over mountain ranges. For an instant, the men believed they could touch the ocean of Hell’s Mouth Bay to the west, and Viseu to the east. Both a day’s distance on foot.

“It’s true when they say the desire of the eye travels faster than the desire of a heart. A heart must pull flesh, bone, a complete body along,” said Professor Manecas, and all nodded in agreement.

“It’s a peek of heaven up here. What a view to be born with!” Padre Lucas pronounced, lifting the cross on his chest and offering a panoramic blessing.

“Nothing ordinary here,” concurred Correia, placing a hand on Padre Lucas’ shoulder.

“Lucky stones. Not like ourselves, born in the pit of the valley where fog and rain slice through our bones. We have to climb uphill to get anywhere,” complained Ti Clemente, spitting a mouthful of tobacco.

“Sacred places are always sunnier,” Padre Lucas reminded.

Everyone nodded in assent.

“These lucky ones,” Mayor Ressaca spoke, pointing at the birthing stone under his feet, “born with a golden view. They only have to roll over themselves and tumble their way down the hill and into the stream where they travel places and populate the world.”

“Born in golden cradles,” concluded Ti Clemente.

The lowering sun bloodied the crest of the hill. Francisco shielded his eyes and drew a sip of water from the gourd, keeping a curious ear on the conversation.

Ferreira, watching glittering sparks reflecting the sunshine, reasoned the baby stones must contain gold seeds, “All riches of the earth must be trapped in the entrails of the small rocks.”

“Certainly closer to God up here,” Padre Lucas insisted.

The Padre’s words were lost in the excitement. The villagers huddled closer to Ferreira, not to miss a single word. Quim, distracted by the hares hopping across the meadow, and dreaming of rising pelt prices, pricked his ears up at the mention of gold.

“If it’s true that these rocks are the seeds of the world, and if it’s true the universe has started in this place, it follows that the world’s riches must be contained in my hand,” Quim, concluded. He tossed a baby stone up into the air. “I’ll pack up some,” he added. This stirred a wave of consternation from the more reverent town folk.

But it was not long before they grew accustomed to the idea and Ti Clemente suggested, “Let us take the baby stones to the village and plant them in a field. We’ll harvest a ripe crop of gold!” Ti Clemente cheered. He welcomed the prospect of divine providence releasing him from the back-breaking hoe.

“In this time of fortune, remember the dear Lord who has never let us down,” Padre Lucas called out.

The villagers swore to secrecy and gathered up their belongings stuffing each pocket with a stone.

Having spent the day staring at the swollen mother-stones, they left without the good fortune of witnessing one miraculous birth.

“Shy stones,” said Ti Clarissa, casting a last glance at the boulders. “I don’t blame them, a whole town staring down at their bellies,” she added, walking away.

(…)

excerpt                         ©paulodacosta

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The Scent of a Lie is a book of fourteen inter-connected stories, set in two charismatic towns in Portugal. Characters weave in and out of the intertwined stories, which can be read as a novel in fragments.

(2002/2012) – Paperback (140p) Format: 196 x 126 – ISBN: 978-0978184766

 MP3    Audio-Book (unabridged) Time: 4 h 14 m                  ISBN:9780978184773

 

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