The Stone House — Fiction (1st Place Winner) (Published)

Her old, worn boots crunched the leaves beneath her small feet, sinking in the mud as she neared the stream. Bushes tugged at the hem of her star-patterned white dress, just like her mother always did to keep her away from the rushing waters. Natalie brushed them away and moved on, approaching the narrow river.

The water rushed and glided past, knowing its path. Smooth stones below its surface invited her to touch them. She breathed deeply through her nose and could feel the moisture from the humid air in her lungs. She closed her eyes and heard the rapid waters speed by, feeling the crashing noises deep within and she opened them again, feeling refreshed. A log sat by the water’s edge to her right. Natalie tested it with a solid push to make sure it wouldn’t roll away and pulled herself onto it when she was satisfied. The dampness of the log seeped into her dress, but she shrugged to no one, and pulled at her boots, slipping them off. She slid off the log, and patted the dirt off her dress as her bare feet sank into the mud. The high sun of the hot summer’s day beat down on her, warming her dark hair. She lifted her face to the sky and basked in the light, letting the cold mud soothe her sore feet.

She crouched down on her knees and pushed her hand into the cold water, the mud seeping into her dress at the knees, but she continued to pluck the smooth stones from the riverbank and stored them in the makeshift pouch of her dress until she had enough. She turned and one stone at a time placed the drying stones firmly into the mud of the shoreline, using twigs and leaves, aligning them into the shape of a square. Using more of her materials it expanded into an aerial view of a house, with chairs made of torn leaves, walls divided by smaller stones. She placed the long, smooth stones, sliding her fingers along their rounded edges. Designated by size, she arranged Mama, Father, and a small daughter.

She shifted her weight to let her feet hang into the water, squealing as the cold water tickled at her feet, letting the rapid water soothe her as she played. Turning her attention back to the house, she picked up the family and set them upright in the earth. Natalie brushed her long messy hair out of her face, wiping her brow with a swift motion, the mud on her fingers leaving dark traces on her skin. With a slow but deliberate motion, she knocked the parents down with one finger, Mama, and then father. The small daughter stood cold and alone. Natalie’s hair fell in front of her face again, and she paused for a moment, studying the house as it lay.

With her finger and thumb she picked up Mama again, staring at her. She placed it close behind the daughter, in a loving embrace. She drew a heart around the two stones with her finger in the mud. With slight hesitation, she picked Father up from the floor of the house and her eyebrows scrunched together. The stone was harsh and surface more rough than the other stones. She pulled her arm back and threw him as hard as she could into the water, casting the stone away like he did to Natalie when her mama was ill.

Natalie froze in her place and looked around to see if anyone was around the river to see what she had done, throwing the Father in such a way, after everything he still has done. She pulled her feet from the water and stood up, her dress now having slight weight to it from the mud, hiding the stars underneath. She rubbed her arm and glanced around again, seeing no one. She was saved once from the river before, saved many times before by him. She took a deep breath and walked towards the edge of the water. Natalie peered towards the spot where the Father now lay under the water and stepped into the river, keeping her eyes on the spot where it sank.

The water seemed harsher the further she went into the water, her legs feeling the force of the waters. Careful to avoid anything sharp or slippery, Natalie continued forward to the spot where Father sank. Sinking lower into the river, she was completely soaked from the waist down by the time she found him, but the water felt more frigid, more dangerous. Her father told her never to go beneath the water, and never try and fight the river, despite how slow it may seem above the surface. Natalie gulped, hesitating for what seemed like forever.

She inhaled and sank down into the depths of the river, straining to keep her head above the surface, reaching with all her might to find the smooth stone among the sharper, jagged rocks. The tip of her fingers ran along the bottom, just barely in her reach. She couldn’t find him, but she knew this is where he fell. She became frantic, scrambling for the stone wildly until she heard her mother say: Breathe, Natalie. It’s going to be okay.

Natalie stood firm and closed her eyes. She took three deep breaths, in and out, counting to ten like her mother had advised her as a child, before the sickness came like a storm. She took a long, deep breath before sinking below the water completely. The river’s force pushed against her, trying to slip her from the rocks and mud, and she pushed her feet into the loose earth, holding her weight.

She opened her eyes, feeling safer, but rubbed at them as they adjusted to the water. Natalie scanned the riverbed for him, finding him near her feet. Clasping the stone in her fingers, she felt a small amount of weight lift off her shoulders. The water pushed her harder, and she felt her feet begin to slip out of the mud.

She thrust her feet back into the mud to spring herself out of the water and gasped for air. Her legs still felt the pressure of the currents, but she pushed through back to the bank, gaining more strength as the water became shallower. Natalie clutched the stone in her hand as she neared the stone house, her dress clung to her as she stepped out of the water.

Natalie studied the Mama stone intensely and plucked her away to replace the Father where she sat behind the daughter, doing what he can to make her happy, doing his best. Natalie used three fingers to dig into the wet earth, just deep enough to hold Mama. She placed Mama in her grave and buried the stone just outside of the stone house.