The Pebble Ballad
By Epidiah Ravachol
I was half-drowned in the brine when they dragged me from icy waters and into that rotting wharf-tavern. Nothing could completely dry in that mist-choked hole, but the fire was warm and the wine was free to those recently pulled from the sea, of which there were too few. There, in that glum air — where we would rejoice in our fortune were it not for our sea-siblings who went down with The Little Skua — survivors and salvagers alike joined in melancholy song so as to busy the mind and chase out our thoughts. And as often happens when such songs are sung, “The Pebble Ballad” was first among them.
It was the verse about the strange and welcoming cottage that did not fit comfortably in the countryside — as if, as the lyrics put it, it was “built by mind and hand, born of distant time and land.” I had seen such a place while sailing in the south no more than six days prior. A singular building shaped almost like a pyramid that stood just to the treetops. It was visible for only a moment, when your line of sight passed through the trees and far side of an algae-infested lagoon. It was secluded and nothing like the thatched hovels that typically populated the coast.
I returned to the coast that winter and sailed south until I found the cottage again. It had been covered from tip to foundation in a thick, dry clay that sealed it against moisture and vermin. It took a morning with a sledge to get the door open, but the treasures I found preserved inside!
The shining jewel of this hoard is this collection of letters found throughout the home.
Scratched into five of seven small wooden tablets once used by the people of those distant coastal villages in rites of confession and prayer.
I know your secret, as my grandmother before me knew it. Her grandmother, the last priestess of the toad-worshipers, practiced her faith in the dark and quiet hours, away from suspicious eyes. She shared your secret with my grandmother when she was my age. And though my grandmother has forgotten more than she can tell me, as I will forget more when I have reached her age, neither of us shall forget your secret.
She brought me here to show me where you stood, locked in stone, an effigy amid the ruins of the toad-worshiper’s temple. She taught me the songs to float a dagger on fresh water and to compel that blade to point to the pebble you once held between your sinister thumb and nameless finger. The same pebble I now hold between mine.
We would sit at your feet and wonder upon you. How long have you stood there? Would you recognize the world around? Have you watched the centuries pass before you? Or do you sleep? Do you dream? Why did you take on the pebble in the first place? Were you tricked into doing so? Or were you always so? There are more questions than stars in the sky. I am bursting with them, and perhaps you possess even more.
After the gap caused by the two missing tablets.
But unlike her, fear has not turned me away. So in the dark and quiet hours, I have snuck into your ruins, to study your graven face by firelight. I find sadness there, but I know not if it is etched in your features or a trick of the dancing shadows. Your secret is a stone in my own heart, a burden I refuse to bear until I am grandmother’s age. I have long pondered the right of it and I have decided to trust you, man from the past.
This is my gift to you. Awaken from your long slumber and stretch your legs. Behold what has become of the world. You are no longer alone in this curse. I will stand in your stead, a statue holding the pebble and awaiting your return. When you have sated your curiosity, find me, for I must hide or my grandmother will surely intervene. Take the pebble from me and pinch it as you have all these centuries. Then we shall swap and, if you wish, we will pass the pebble and its burden back and forth so that you may live a life of flesh once more.
Scrawled on papyrus by an unsure hand and wrapped in tanned and oiled goatskin.
You are so very young. A child. I had not known. It took so long to learn your tongue. Longer still to learn your signs. Longer still to learn your trust.
I awoke from the restless, dreamless night of stone. I had just closed my tired eyes and in the span of a single nod the entire world rotted away. Brown-green sea and earth swallowed the shimmering ziggurats of my people. Or they were carried away, brick by brick, by the meticulous greed of tomb robbers and time. Or a giant amused himself by flinging me over the horizon into this muted land. Even the toad-worshipers’ temple that lay in hoary ruins at my feet was strange and new to me.
You awake with the world around you still familiar. You do not miss the purple-and-scarlet fruited vines that crept across the lush plains, because you have never seen beyond the gloomy trees that stretch up to dull your sight in all directions. You do not miss the chimes on the wind that warned of coming storms or the succulent and melancholic Feasts of the Survivors that followed them. The air does not taste so cold and stale to you. The people seem natural, not too short nor too ruddy. None among them assail you with spears and thrown rocks.
You may not flee as I did when I awoke. You may not understand why so many years have passed between when I awoke and when I deciphered your tablets. I am shamed by my ignorance in those years, but I am shamed more by my fear in the years that followed.
I fled and your grandmother found you as a stone statue in that quiet glen you had tucked yourself in. She took the pebble and hid it away. She feared what would happen should it be lost. I found her after I learned your words and with her the pebble.
She greeted me with a knife and held me accountable for your actions. The memory of her vicious welcome is etched into my face and back. I did not return to her thatched home for several seasons. We made our peace much later. She entrusted me with the pebble. She was not able to use it herself, but hoped I would.
I am sorry for how long it took me to hold the pebble, embrace the transformation into stone, and free you from your stasis.
Written across three amphorae — one filled with strongly scented oil, one with sour wine and the third with pungent seed.
Upon the first amphora:
Oh how I have hated you. I awoke in the rain and feared a season had passed when I had only expected days. Seeking a dry place to read your message, I ran home but found an unrecognizable village, with no known kin to shelter me. So I hid in the ruins of the toad-worshiper’s temple, read of your sins by firelight, and wept.
That night, I could not reckon how long I have been trapped in the stone. I suspected grandmother had changed my garments, for they were not the same as I remembered. But even those new ones had moldered and tattered over years of neglect. This was the first hint that she had passed while I slept in stone. That morning, I found you, retrieved the pebble from your grasp and threw it into the lagoon.
Upon the second amphora:
The people of the village tell a horrid tale of a demon disguised as a statue in the ruins of the toad-worshiper’s temple that one day sprung to life and carried off the last child of direct lineage to the secret priestess of that cursed place. They are kind to neither of us in their telling. So I have not confessed my true origins to any of them.
I have now figured that I have been stone for close to 30 years. Almost twice as many years as I remember living. You were right. Though I recognize no one in it, this world is still familiar to me. People still fish and I can still repair their nets for food and shelter. The trees are comforting and the buildings do not shimmer. It is not the home I remember, but it is not so alien that I could not make it home again.
Upon the third amphora:
After a fortnight of regret, I began diving the cold waters of the lagoon and sifting the sands beneath for the pebble. I have judged you unfairly. What was counted in mere years for me could be counted in generations for you. Perhaps even more. Though I am unable to truly understand your experience, I know just a hint of what it must mean.
I have decided to trust you once again. I now hold the pebble between my thumb and third finger. These amphorae will sell for a modest sum. Enough to last until the moon wanes. Do not leave me until the clothes rot from my frame. Return to me, take my place, and I will return to take yours.
Carved into the inside wall just above the hearth of the cottage of unusual construction and height.
I am humbled by all your gifts, child. Here is a home for us to share in our burden. You have been stone for only eleven nights. You are welcome to whatever you find in our stores. Welcome.
Each of the following, and many more, were written on papyrus and tucked into the amphora of seed which rested, unsold, on a squat table near the entrance of the strange cottage.
Such treasures you have collected here! The crystal bowls, the iridescent stones, the bright and patterned feathers, the perfumed scents! And I, in my pride, thought that I spoiled you with oil, wine and seed. You marvel me even more, man from the past.
Tell me that I may have one of my curiosities sated: Are these treasures from the past?
I have traveled far during your decades of stone. I have spent more years in your world than I have in mine. This is all the beauty I could find in it. I stole dark blue-and-red eggs from a viper’s nest because they reminded me of the mottled aprons worn by the priest-lords that sheltered my family during the war. I wrested the bright, sharp fruits that now dry on the mantel from a bejeweled seafarer because I had never before seen their color or beheld their scents. I sought out the six volumes of Saregith’s Histories Real, Imagined and Mistaken because I cannot understand why your people tell the tales they tell. You will find in the pot resting by the fire a stew of root and grain that reminds me of the one I ate most my adult days. I do not care for it. You might.
There was a storm two nights ago that blew a tree into the southern wall. It took me an entire day to remove the tree, but I do not know how to repair your house. I attempted to use part of the tree, dried leaves and mud, to no avail. It does not hold the wind at bay and the roof above has begun to bow ominously. So you will find me in a graceless pose, plugging the hole as best I can. I imagine the wind will still seep in, but I think I can hold the ceiling for a while this way.
We are bound by the pebble. You must not put yourself in peril. We do not know the limits of our stone. You might not have been able to support the roof. You might not have been whole when I took the pebble’s curse upon myself again. You might not have survived the transformation back to flesh. You might have died and I might have remained stone evermore.
You must also never hide when you take the pebble. I know not the songs you use to find it and there are none left who can teach them to me.
You must not reveal our seclusion to others. Your people are unwelcoming to me and have sought to do me harm.
We must follow these rules.
After a score of unanswered notes that essentially reiterate the same three rules.
That I could teach you at least one song so that you would stop singing this same one. Tell me, what made you take on the pebble all those centuries ago?
I was to be honored for one bright summer. I had proven myself during a spring of glorious games and pious fasting. Someone else was meant to stand in my place when the summer games ended and the night began reclaiming the twilight. It had always been done so.
Written on papyrus laid out upon three crystal bowls of various sizes, accompanied by instructions on how full to fill each bowl with wine as well as on where and how often to strike each bowl.
Here I will teach you a song. It is not as useful as the ones that will help you seek out the pebble, but it is one my grandmother taught me when I was much younger. You must follow these instructions carefully and in exchange you have my oath that I will follow your instructions.
A multitude of exchanges were made after this, each involving instruments and instructions on their uses, building on the previous instructions in attempts to teach each other the songs of their respective people and eras. It is my contention that somewhere within this exchange lies the key to the song that seeks the pebble.
And then, pinned to the door by dagger point, these final two letters.
Swiftly, you must pack what you will and flee. Strangers hang about in the wood. I have caught sight of them, but they are clearly ashamed of what they plot and flee when confronted, only to skulk back when they believe themselves unobserved.
Go as far as you need to a place where you are not feared. When I awake from the stone, I will use my songs and find you. But go far! I have spent these last two years living in the trophies of your journeys and I itch to see more of the world.
I have been attacked upon the road. A man possessed with the spirits of his ancestors sought vengeance upon me for carrying you off all those years ago. He swung a stout club of sharp stones. He was clumsy, but determined. I fled into the dark night and hid in the monotony of your trees until the sun rose.
I spent the night in a greater fear than the one that held me that first night you took the pebble from me. I am not willing to die as you stand in stone. I do not know how many centuries will pass before someone such as you will find you and the pebble.
I will take the pebble out to sea. You will awake and I will sink with it to the ocean floor too deep for you to find.
You can take what you wish from our home and sell the rest. You may travel. You may see the parts of your world I have written of. You may find the parts I will never see. You have given me gifts unique in this universe. You are owed a debt greater than I can repay. I love you as kin and will carry that love into a future unknown.
However, I have come to believe that the final message in this bizarre conversation is “The Pebble Ballad” itself. Written upon the only medium that could persist far enough into the future that it may outlast the eternal ocean that now clutches to its bosom the man from the past as it does The Little Skua and so many of my dear sea-siblings. A song heard by all who drag their livelihoods from the sea or have spent a damp night in any of the wharf-taverns that crowd even the farthest ports and harbors. A song that is, even now, older than any living memory. A song that has drawn me into their very home. A song that now points me to the sea and breathes within me the desire to dive its depths in search of a man holding a pebble.