When I was a child, I had a habit of collecting stones whenever I suspected they might be alive. It was just a feeling I had sometimes while holding a stone in my hand, feeling its smooth and heavy pressure against my palm. I often got the sense that the stone was holding something of its own as well.
Each time I found a stone I particularly appreciated, I would wrap it gingerly in a tissue to protect it from the cold and take it home with me. When one of my parents opened my lunch tin to find a cold and lifeless rock staring up at them, they would exclaim “Oh! Another one!” My father complained that it was a strange habit, but my mother said there was no harm in it.
My cousin made fun of me one time, telling me that after I died, I was going turn into a stone like that.
“You know, you’ve even started to look like a stone recently,” he said to me. “You’re turning rounder and flatter and even your skin is looking gray. Soon you’ll just be a rock in the yard and I’ll come kick you around from place to place.”
This was just something he said one afternoon at my house, but the thought of it really frightened me.
Part of it was that I got sick pretty often as a child. I had a runny nose all year round, in the winter and the summer. It even happened a couple times that I got a high enough fever that my mother would take me to the hospital to get an IV drip put in. These times, I would suddenly start to suspect that my heart had stopped beating, and then I would clutch at my ribs trying to feel it and make sure it was really there.
After my cousin said that, I began to have a real worry that I might turn into a stone one day. I wondered what I would be allowed to keep as a stone, whether it would include my family or my address or even my name.
One day when I was nine years old, I started to feel dizzy during algebra class. The teacher was up at the front giving her lecture and didn’t seem to notice that one of the windows hadn’t been closed all the way. From that cracked window flowed the stinky but sweet smell that signaled magnolias were starting to bloom. Maybe it was that breeze or the fact that I hadn’t worn my scarf, but after a while, the familiar feeling of a headache began.
I raised my hand, but the teacher seemed to already know what I was going to ask.
“Not feeling well again?” she asked me. Without giving me a chance to explain, she waved me toward the door as if to say ‘go ahead’ and went on with her lesson. I packed my bag and left, but felt dissatisfied that I hadn’t been able to explain properly, about the window and forgetting my scarf.
The nurse in the office took my temperature then left the room to phone my mother. Usually, my mother would comfort me on the phone. She would say things like, “When you come home, I’ll make your favorite seaweed soup!” or “Just be brave for a few more hours, Turtle.” (Turtle was her pet name for me because I had a habit of hiding behind her in public.) Then I would usually be ushered back to my next class, so I really tried to take advantage of my brief time to rest. I laid my head down on the cool leather of the examination chair and tried to gauge my heart rate. It was a habit I’d developed to help me fall asleep at night, gradually being soothed by the rhythmic thwomp-thwomp taking place in my chest.
It felt like I laid there for a long, long time that day. When the nurse did finally come back into the room, I was surprised to see my mother following behind her. I sat up.
“Your mother’s going to take you home now dear,” the nurse said. She smiled at me and, strangely, kissed the top of my head.
In the parking lot, my mother told me that my cousin and his mother had died in a car accident that day.
According to my mother, they had been driving down Westshore Turnpike on the bend that goes along the old Portola Forest. It was the same route we took to get to my father’s office. I could picture it right away with its tall sequoia trees and their needle-like canopies, and the many different-sized ferns along the road that reminded me of a swamp.
My cousin and his mother had been the only ones in the car. It was the middle of the morning and she had been driving him to school because they had woken up late. It was past rush hour and no one was really on the road, so it was possible she had been speeding a little. The temperature had been low the night before, so there had been streaks of ice on the ground even though the day was sunny. The car’s wheels had spun outwards and caused the vehicle to careen down a hillside and into a grove of trees.
A man who lived in a trailer on a side road nearby heard the noise of the crash, and had run out to see the car flipped over. He called the police right away. An hour later, my father got a call from my cousin’s father at his office. He had phoned my mom at her office and she had come to school to pick me up.
“Now we are going to pick up your father so he doesn’t have to take the train home today, Turtle,” my mother said. After she finished telling me, she didn’t say anything more and she didn’t turn on the radio either so it became totally silent in the car.
When I saw her glance at me through the rearview mirror, I turned my head to look out the window instead.
“Are we going to drive past the forest road?” I finally asked as I watched the ferns and bushes woosh along outside the window of the car. The “forest road” was what I always called it. I was thinking about whether my cousin would still be there, even though my mother told me he had died in the car accident.
“Oh,” my mother said, as if just realizing something. She slowed the car down and reached for the GPS. “No… we’ll take a different route today.”
Then we drove an extra half hour on a route that had lots of stops and turns. Still, I didn’t feel nauseous at all like I usually did on long car rides. Neither of us said anything almost the whole way. Finally, when we were almost at the office, I thought I heard my mother, mutter, almost under her breath, “That rash woman.”
There were the largest flowers I’d ever seen in my life at the funeral three weeks later. Carnations. Chrysanthemums. White roses. Tulips. Lilies. The burial was held at the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church where we had gone to Easter service one year when I was little. I couldn’t remember if my cousin had been there, only that there had been people everywhere and that everybody had been loud.
It felt strange to me to think that my cousin had really died. I had only seen him a few times in my life. Twice when his parents came over to our house, once at another cousin’s Christmas dinner, and maybe one other time. He had not actually been my real cousin. His father had been my father’s cousin. So it didn’t feel strange to not have heard from him in a while. When we drove to the church for the funeral, it still felt like maybe we were going to Easter service and that I would still see them there.
There were a lot of family members at the church. I shook all my cousins’ hands as their mothers shook my mother’s hands. The kids were all wearing stiff dresses or tuxedos and we all stayed close to our families instead of talking to each other.
My dad and I stood around while my mother carried up flowers wrapped in cellophane and boxes of oranges and pineapples from the car, and then went up to the front of the church hall with a large group of other women to talk loudly and arrange things. When they carried in the two large coffins, some people went up closer to look into them and lay down flowers, but my dad held me firmly by the shoulders as we stood in our row and all I saw was a sea of people in black pushing slowly forward.
After the service, people stood around the large arrangements of flowers in the hallway. Most of the women there were my mother’s age and many of them wore thickly sweet perfumes, and all of them would pat my head or squeeze my hands as they came by, and a few of them were crying the whole time. The sweet perfume smell started to make me woozy after some time. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve and asked if she could take me to the restroom, but she waved me off. “Go on your own, Turtle,” she said.
The bathroom at the church was empty when I arrived, pushing open the heavy door. Inside the stalls, there were the kind of all-black toilet seats which made me nervous. I took a long time in my stall arranging squares of toilet paper to cover the whole seat without any gaps. Then, as I was finally sitting down onto the toilet, the bathroom door opened, and two women entered. Their heels clacked on the linoleum and a faint cigarette smell seeped into my stall. I watched their shadows cross the floor to stand by the sink.
“You know, she was always getting ticketed for speeding,” one of the women said, over the sound of the faucet running. “She kept a pile of tickets in the glove compartment. I saw it when we did carpool.”
I heard the other woman make a tsking sound and saw her begin to tap her foot rapidly. “She was like that. That sounds like her.”
“But what I can’t get over is that her husband said she didn’t even come home until three a.m. the night before.”
I wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but all the hair on my arm suddenly raised up. Their voices were low but very serious, like the voices of my classmates when they shared secrets.
“And did you know she had a bouquet of flowers in the car? From some stranger. Her husband saw them as he left that morning. A pretty flower box with a pink ribbon sitting in the passenger’s seat. The expensive kind with white roses. Maybe from that Japanese place. She came back in the middle of the night wearing lipstick and carrying all these flowers. What else can we think?”
“So, do you think she had been drinking the night before?”
“Tsk tsk tsk,” the other woman said. “I’m not saying that, but how can we not wonder? Who did she go out to see all dressed up? Didn’t she care if her husband found out, or was she really that reckless?”
Sitting there, I pictured the chrysanthemums and hydrangeas and carnations and lilies and white roses from the funeral lobby, a massive pile of them in the passenger’s seat of the car, spilling over and blocking my cousin from view.
“She did have that sort of careless personality. A free spirit, some people call it… You know, her husband told my husband it wasn’t the first time she didn’t come home all night.”
“Listen, I wouldn’t have accused her of it, but I can’t say I’m surprised. She was so pretty. I always thought she probably had a lot of boyfriends back in the day. She always did her hair so well, and her makeup so well. She gave you that feeling.”
“She knew how to put herself together well.”
I tried to picture my cousin’s mother in my mind, but I couldn’t completely remember her face. I had never thought of my parents or their friends as being beautiful or not, not like other girls at school.
“How could she have known there would be ice on the road? It’s been warm weather for weeks. The trees already have blossoms.”
“I know. No matter what, you can’t blame a person for something like this…”
“That’s why they call it a senseless tragedy, I suppose. Just as the weather is becoming nice and along such a pretty road.”
“You know, something like this happens and I think, maybe I should be glad to be an average-looking woman.”
“Oh, you’re too traditional. At least, I think it’s good she had some romance in her life while she lived.”
“I would never be that bold.”
“Don’t say that yet. You’re younger than me, but we’ve both got a lot of years to go. Look at me, I’ve been a wife for thirty years! Maybe it’s time for me to find a lover…”
“Mm, well he bought her such nice flowers. He must have treated her well…”
“She was just that sort of a spontaneous, romantic type. She was like a kid in that way. ” I heard the sound of sniffles as one of the women blew her nose. “Rushing around after a night out with her lover. I didn’t even know people could live like that…”
I heard the woman’s voice break then and, because I didn’t quite know what to do, I flushed the toilet and the women abruptly fell silent. I stepped out of my stall, and both of them turned to stare at me and watched as I washed my hands, and then I went back out into the lobby without looking up even once.
A few hours later, people were packing up to leave. Attendants were removing the serving tables and some people came to pack up the many boxes and baskets of flowers. A woman in a fur-collar dress caught my eye and walked directly toward me. I recognized her as one of the women from the bathroom conversation.
“Hey. You’re Lulu right?” she said, bending down to my level. Close-up, I could see a loose, pale powder on her face. She wore a dark-colored lipstick that I did not think was very pretty. “I know you were listening to what we were saying in the bathroom earlier. And I want you to know Lulu — old women like us don’t always mean what we say.”
I didn’t look at her.
“Can you understand that, Lulu?” she said, putting a hand with a ring on my shoulder. “Don’t think about what we said too much, huh? We’re just two old ladies and we say things we shouldn’t sometimes. I hope you can understand what we really meant and not take it all so seriously.”
I looked down again and didn’t say anything.
“After all… nothing in life is what you predict it to be, so you might as well go in an unexpected direction. Then you and life might suddenly meet up again on a road,” she said to me.
This I didn’t understand at all, and it didn’t seem to have anything to do with what they had talked about in the bathroom. After a while, the woman stood up. When I looked up at her again, she was putting a tissue back in her bag.
“You know Lulu, one day you’ll understand. And anyways, it’s not a crime to have a lover,” she said to me.
Then she walked off past the massive arrangements of flowers. I never saw her again.
In the middle of that night, I woke up clutching my chest. Something heavy was hanging there and couldn’t hold on any longer. I reached into my chest and felt nothing beating there at all. Instead, my fingers wrapped around a very smooth and distinctly shaped stone. I held it up to my face in my dark bedroom and looked at it.
“Aha!” I whispered to myself. “So I do not have a heart after all, but only a stone.”
The stone seemed to grow weightier in my hand, as though it wanted to say something to me. I held it up to my ear and heard a great whooshing sound like the wind. As I listened to it, I also felt it grow heavier and heavier and knew that soon I wouldn’t be able to carry it anymore. I put on my slippers and carefully took the stone downstairs into the back garden.
In the garden, the sound the stone seemed to be making grew clearer and more distinct. Now, when I put it to my ear, I could hear something like a voice inside of the wild wind noises.
“At least her heart was not made of stone,” the stone said to me.
I felt the thick feeling in my chest that meant a big cry was going to wash over me. I held the stone out in front of me in both my hands and in that moment, I knew it would now be silent forever. It grew so heavy that I had no choice but to set it down onto the grass where it began to crawl away like a turtle. I watched as it slowly made its way to the edge of the backyard, where the bushes closed in over it, and then it disappeared, and then its shadow disappeared as well. Then, looking around me, I knew I was in a dream because except for our small backyard area, I was surrounded by an endless dome of stars and nothing else.
Above me, the universe glittered like the inside of a gem. Some of the shimmering stars up there were blue and yellow and even orange. They were so pretty that I wanted to never look away, even though as I stood there in my nightgown, the cold wind blew directly at me, filling me with a great and uncomfortable chill. I felt filled with questions and the twinkling overhead felt filled with little voices trying so hard to reach me across a vast and immeasurable distance. I suddenly had a new sort of worry or maybe just a thought, Will I get to live a beautiful life?
It’s now been nearly fifty years since that time.
Can you believe it? I am nearly an old woman now. In the many years that have passed, I have had all the experiences that I didn’t know anything about back then, like getting married and raising children and attending funerals and buying flowers and meeting up with a lover. All the things those women talked about in that bathroom, I think to myself sometimes. And although those many and varied and beautiful and difficult phases of life have passed over me, I haven’t died of an illness yet. Even though I still get a runny nose in the spring and the summer, I find that the older I get, the less I worry about things like that.
Also, I have come to believe that nobody’s heart is made of stone. These days, when I see someone doing something that might be very careless, I try not to think of them badly. After all, I think to myself, perhaps they have just bought flowers and are speeding to or from their lover’s.