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A Secret in the Stones
By Sharmila Munver
All Ike Moore wanted was to become a famous writer. Secretly, he wanted to change the past where he would be revered as a writer for eons to come. But mostly, he just wanted to write a damn story.
His ideas dried up by the end of the first paragraph. He pissed away the time reading gossip columns and watching movies to borrow plots to manipulate with his own twists. He even walked into a college library and stole unsuspecting students’ papers right off the printer, rewrote it in his own words and published them. He hadn’t written anything of his own for months.
One day he was digging through storage bins and boxes in his garage, not knowing what he was searching for. He found boxes of old photos, books with pages turned yellow and brittle over time, outdated and moth-eaten clothes that he had forgotten about. As he picked through them, a long blue box, about three feet long and five inches deep, toppled down from a top shelf. It was labeled Souvenirs and sealed closed with a tape that had partially melted on the cardboard surface. Though the box bore patches of stains and scratches, evidence of neglect, it was otherwise fully intact. Ike had long forgotten about his illicit collection.
He sliced the tape with a box-cutter and opened the flaps. Inside he found a glass jar of rare Egyptian and Greek coins that he had won by cheating at poker games; a samurai sword from Japan, which he stole from his drunk roommate; and a jewel-encrusted dagger that his tour guide had accidentally dropped in the backstreets of Morocco.
At the bottom of the carton was a long, narrow wooden box. Ike picked it out with both hands and opened the lid. Inside was a saffron-colored cloth, wrapped around a twelve-inch long gold and white feather. The hardened tip of the feather was fashioned into a quill.
Ike had stolen this artifact along with its wooden box from a museum in London when he was a teenager. It was a thrill-steal. But soon after his crime, he overcame with fear that someone was watching him. Even though he was never caught or even suspected, even after he brought it to America with him, the fear seeped deep inside him. Curiously, when he rediscovered the feather in his box, he realized that it was the very thing he had been searching.
The inscriptions on the museum wall said that the feather belonged to a bird called Garuda, an ancient Hindu mythological king of birds. Garuda, a fearsome messenger between humans and gods, graced the ancient books of Vedas and Puranas through stories of kings and heavens.
According to the story posted on the museum label, the feather resided in an ancient stone temple in India for 3,000 years until a drunk Englishman stole it after threatening a priest. When the priest refused to hand over the feather, the thief struck him on the head with a rock. The dying man uttered a warning of consequences to whoever claimed to possess the quill. Though his warning was met with laughter and ridicule, his words rang true. On the night of the theft, the burglar was killed by lightning, and the feather was found, unharmed, in his bag by a couple of British soldiers. Instead of returning the feather back to the temple, the English brought it to London and presented it as a gift to their queen, who donated it to the museum.
Ike studied the feather closely for the first time. The gold hair-strands on the feather concluded for Ike that the ancient feather was man-made. Then Ike got an idea. He would write a story about how a struggling author found an ancient magic quill that helped him write award winning stories. “That story’s gonna blow my agent out of the water!” he said out loud.
That evening he bought some black ink. On his writing desk, Ike dipped the gold-feathered quill into the inkpot and touched the tip to the paper. As he did so, his hand moved across the page without his permission. Though he intended to begin the story in his own words, the quill commanded its own will. Ike couldn’t open his palm, his fingers felt pressed around the quill. On the paper, the quill, held in Ike’s hand, wrote:
A long, long time ago, in a forest, a traveler found himself lost in a strange forest. Every path he took looked the same to him, and he feared that he was going in circles. He carried a sack full of scrolls, some clean clothes and an empty food bowl. His sack, the he carried over his shoulders, felt heavier by the moment. Overhead, though the sun weakened in strength, the heat remained almost unbearable. The traveler sought a way into the City of Kings before sundown, away from the forest and the wild animals. But all around him was a maze of trees and rocks, through which, at last, a glitter caught his eye just beyond the banyan trees.
“Water!” He followed his eyes to the shinning object.
But there was no water. The glitter that he saw was the sunlight bouncing off a throne that randomly sat in a clearing among trees. An old man rested on the throne. His small, skeletal stature suggested that he had endured many kinds of weather in his life. He remained unmoved by the approach of the traveler.
“Greetings, old man,” said the traveler. “Could you point me towards the City of Kings? I’m lost.”
“You are not lost. You are here.”
“But I don’t know where ‘here’ is.”
“This is the City of Kings. I am the King of wealth. But is that what you truly seek?”
The traveler became annoyed. “If you are king, where is your court? Your subjects, your palace?”
“Only a fool hears what he wants to hear.”
The old man was the first person whom the traveler had seen all day, and he didn’t want to offend him, at least not until he got some answers. Besides, he was thirsty, hungry and tired.
“Pardon, your majesty. Do you have any water?”
“I have no water to give, but I’ll give you a touch of royalty.” The old man gave the traveler a gold coin and touched his forehead. “What you seek is through that passage." The old man pointed at the entryway that the traveler didn’t notice before.
He passed through the direction advised by the old man. He came upon a carpet of cool, green grass, rustling foliage of greens and reds on the trees and the grounds. The air carried a scent of warm spices mixed with herbs inciting his appetite. He followed his nose to a small hut from where a white smoke arose hoping to receive some food.
“Is anyone there?” said the traveler.
An old woman appeared into the doorway. Her grey hair was loosely braided with strings of wilted jasmine flowers woven through them. Her back was hunched, and she walked with a cane.
"Greetings, old woman. I've been traveling for days in my search for the City of Kings.”
“City of Kings? Why would a royal like you go looking for the City of Kings, when you are here?”
“But I don’t know where ‘here’ is?” said the traveler.
“You are in the City of Queens. I am the Queen of beauty. But is that what you truly seek?”
“If you are the queen of beauty then why do you look old? Where is your youth and dark tresses?”
“Only a fool sees ugliness in beauty.”
The grumbling in his stomach reminded him to be humble, at least until he got what he wanted. “Pardon, your majesty. I’ve run out of food. Could you spare some food for a hungry traveler?”
“I have no food to spare, but I’ll give you a touch of youth. The old woman touched the traveler’s forehead. What you seek will be found through that crooked path.” The old woman pointed at the path that wound around a bend.
The traveler followed the path that went round and round, up and down the forest. The evening was approaching with the sounds of the night on its heel. His approach elicited scurrying of critters, scampering of rabbits, and stampeding of deer. “Soon hungry animals will spy me through trees, and shadows will chase me into their belly,” he thought. But just as the sounds of chirping crickets, singing cicadas and hooting owls dominated the onslaught of night, he heard people talking. He followed the sounds until he saw light emitting from a bonfire. A group of families gathered around the blaze. Behind them, their huts stood in the flickering shadows.
“Greetings, Peasants,” said the traveler. “I’ve been on the journey to the City of Kings, but I lost my way.”
“You are not lost, handsome prince. You are here,” said the villagers.
“But I don’t know where ‘here’ is,” said the traveler.
“You are within the kingdom of the City of Kings, and we are your subjects. But is that what you truly seek?” asked the villagers.
“If you are my subjects, then why do you not bow to me, your prince, and show me the respect I deserve.”
“Only a fool speaks arrogantly to his loyal subjects,” said the villagers.
On hearing this, the traveler was once again reminded to be humble. “Why, yes, my subjects. Do you have a place in your homes for your prince to rest for the night?”
“No place to stay, but we will give you fame. It takes a brave one to survive alone through that ferocious jungle. What you seek will be found across the crop fields.” The elder in the village touched the traveler’s forehead.
The traveler wanted to stay in the village for the night, but after being called the brave one, he didn’t even ask for a torch to light his path. Instead, he stepped just outside the reach of the light gleaming from the bonfire and settled under a tree for the rest of the night. He shook and shivered in fear of prowling wild cats and restless spirits that were believed to roam the jungle at night. He stayed up all night, long after the fire went out. When dawn broke with sounds of birds, the traveler rose on his feet and made his way across the crop field. Hungry, thirsty and tired, he came across a sage sitting outside his ashram. Though his knees buckled, head spun and his body ached, the traveler used all his determination to enter the sage’s courtyard, where he fell to the ground and fainted.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself laying on a straw mattress inside a home. The sage, with long white beard, was looking at him. “How are you feeling now?”
“Better,” said the traveler as he sat up and leaned against the wall.
“Where are you headed?” asked the sage.
“Could I have some food and water?”
The sage nodded and went into the adjacent room. Shortly after, he returned and set down a banana leaf and a cup of water in front of his guest. On the leaf, he served fruits, and rice pudding. The traveler scoffed down the food faster than he could chew and chugged down the water in two large gulps. The sage waited until his guest finished eating and had gained strength to speak.
“I am traveling to the City of Kings to gain employment in the king’s court as a storyteller. In return I hope to gain reward and recognition,” said the traveler.
“That is Ambitious. May I hear one of your stories?”
"For a gold coin, I will read you one story. For two gold coins, I will read two.”
"But I offered you food, water, and shelter. Doesn’t that count for something? A sage has no use for gold, and so I have none to give.”
The traveler thought for a moment about a way to escape without giving away one of his stories for free. Then he said, “In return for your hospitality, I will give you wealth, beauty and fame.” The traveler touched the sage’s forehead.
“So be it,” said the Sage.
The traveler raised his head high, stole his gaze away from the sage and scurried out of the ashram. By that afternoon, he saw white marble palace domes protruding from beyond the trees, and by the evening he had entered through city gates. As he approached, the citizens turned up their noses, squinted their eyes, and moved away from him. When he passed by the street vendors, they shooed him away. Insulted, the traveler thought, “they will come to know my greatness, my legend.” But when reached the palace gates, the soldiers crossed their spears blocking his path.
"Get lost you, filthy beggar!"
“Beggar? Who are you calling a beggar? I am the legendary storyteller from the west. Wait until the king hears this, and it will be death for you.”
The soldiers laughed and jabbed the traveler with the dull edge of their spears until he retreated. Tired and confused at the citizen’s behavior toward a stranger, he decided to settle down for the evening. The traveler turned a corner until he saw a room for rent sign.
“Good evening, I would like to rent a room for a night.” He said to a man standing near the front door of the house.
“Get out of here!” The man yelled.
The traveler became embarrassed at this unexpected response and scurried away to another street until he saw another room for rent sign. A woman stood at the balcony above the sign. “Good evening, I would like to rent a room for the night.”
The woman shot an angry look at him, went into her room and slammed the door shut.
He continued to receive similar angry response from others. Finally, disheartened and disillusioned, the traveler settled at a riverbank and searched for clean clothes in his sack. To his surprise, his sack had a few torn garments, and his scrolls were riddled with holes made by bugs. He jumped up and shrieked at the loss of his property. Just then, he saw his reflection in the river. His face was wrinkled and old, and his clothes looked like dirty rags. He remembered the old man, the old woman, and the villagers had offered him gifts despite his arrogance, which he used to deceive the sage who had saved his life. The traveler realized that he had foolishly given away his gifts. He fell to the ground and cried.
As the last letter appeared on the paper, the quill released its grip on Ike’s hand. The bones in his fingers and wrist hurt as he opened and closed his palm to relax his hand. He knew in an instant that the story didn't belong to him, that it came from somewhere else, and that he was merely just a tool. The story that he had just written wasn’t in his head like ones he had written in the past. The tale that appeared on the paper now unfolded like a new movie. He sat and let his experience sink in, to come to grips with what he had just experienced.
But the quill belongs to me, so the story belongs to me, he thought.
Ike considered manipulating some plots in the story to sell in different genres. He thought he’d publish the story as is in children’s genre; rewrite the characters of the old man and the old woman into young, hard-bodied characters, give it a sexual twist and sell it as erotica; change the characters of the villagers into cannibals and sell it as a horror; kill some characters and sell it as murder mystery, and so on.
I’m the master of this quill.
Suddenly, the lights went out. His entire neighborhood lost power in an instant. Blackness starred him in the face. The humming and the buzzing of the appliances fell silent. In the deafness, he could only hear the blood whooshing in the veins of his ears. As darkness lingered, the silence shattered into a crashing, ripping, tearing, and booming of a storm. The ground beneath him shook, the windows rattled, and the foundation of his home creaked as tremendous winds powered through his neighborhood. His first instinct was to fall to the ground, but the walls began to rip at their limbs. He crawled out of his bedroom, away from the windows, and into the kitchen where he barricaded himself against a countertop. First, he heard a slam that rung all around making it impossible to point its direction, which followed by a gale, that carried and tumbled him. His body thwacked against things and they hit back. Tossing and tumbling in the wind, he couldn’t breathe, nor could tell if he was experiencing dizziness or a heightened awareness of everything that circled all around him. Soon he lost all senses of all direction. For him, there was no up or down, and gravity was everywhere yet nowhere.
When the tumbling stopped, he found a paramedic kneeling next to him. "How do you feel?"
Ike stared at him. “Huh?”
“You were hit by a surprise storm last night. Do you know where you are?” asked the paramedic.
Ike realized that the storm had passed, and he had survived. He sat up and saw debris all around him, most of what used to be his possessions, now lay littered like discards in a landfill. Despite the medic’s advice, Ike struggled to his feet. What he saw almost made him throw up. The storm had completely destroyed his home down to its foundation, while the homes of his neighbors remained intact.
Ike stood in front of a mirror in his motel room, examining the cuts across his cheek and forehead. He hoped they wouldn’t leave scars. “Once the money from the insurance comes, I’ll figure it all out then,” he thought.
The phone rang. It was the appeals department of his homeowner’s insurance company. “Sorry, we do not cover destruction caused by an act of God," said the agent. “Our surveyor will come by your current location to bring you some of the things he found on your property.”
About an hour later, a surveyor brought him the only undamaged thing he could find in the debris: The wooden box with a unique feather wrapped in a saffron-colored cloth.
“Did you find a stack of papers with writing on it?”
Surveyor shook his head.
"I need that story to pay for my room and a new apartment. The pages were right next to this box."
“Papers in that storm?” The surveyor shook his head again. “Sorry about your loss.”
Ike tucked the box in his waistband and ran out. He raced through people’s front yards, jumped over fences and sprinted through the parking lots until he entered his own neighborhood and the very spot where his home once stood. He searched for the pages through the debris, occasionally finding cracked mugs, a partially broken plate, mud-caked clothes, few books torn and soaked, all of which he put into a bag that he also found in the destruction. But he didn’t find the pages of the story.
“I’ll rewrite that story, or make the quill give me another story,” Ike said to himself.
He had enough money to pay for a week’s stay at the motel and food, but not enough to buy ink for the quill or paper to write the story. Ike knocked on his neighbor’s door and asked to borrow some money. "Look, sorry for your misfortune, but come on, man. I’ve never seen you go to work. Get a job.” The neighbor closed the door.
Ike hung his head in embarrassment and drifted toward the motel. He finally looked at his surroundings. The neighborhood streets were littered with trash strewn about from all around. Most shops on both sides of the roads were closed with shutters down. Some shop owners put a sign up: Close due to no power.
On the motel entrance door, Ike saw another sign: Water has been shut off due to broken pipelines caused by the storm. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Ike lashed at the front desk attendant. “What the hell! Why didn’t you say before? I could have showered and at least collected some drinking water.”
"But the sign has been there since 5 am, and a notice was pushed under the door of every room,” said the attendant.
“Well, I didn’t get any notice.”
“Are you in room 202? Yep, I placed it under your door myself. I know because your door is the closest to the stairs.”
When Ike entered his room, he saw a thin, white sign on the floor, as the clerk said. Hungry, thirsty and stuck in dirty clothes that smelled of sweat, Ike dropped on the spring bed that squeaked and whined at the slightest movement. With no ink and no paper, he tried to recall the details of the story to be able to rewrite it later. Hours passed. Ike felt hunger pangs pushing up against his ribs. He went downstairs and found a vending machine stocked with chips and candy near the front desk. He fished out two dollars in coins from his pocket and inserted them into the machine one at a time and pressed for a bag of potato chips. The vending machine ate his coins without dispensing food. Ike punched the buttons again, banged the machine but still, the food dispenser didn't push the bag forward. The front desk attendant was not at his desk. Ike slammed his hand on the bell at the desk, and when there was still no answer, he grabbed the machine with both hands and began to rock it. The back and front legs of the vending machine landed with bang-bang each time. The commotion must have alerted the desk attendant and another employee. “What the hell are you doing?” They each grabbed Ike by his arms and threw him out the building. “We’re calling the cops.”
Ike fell on the pavement. He had no place else to go.
Laying on the cot, Ike stared at the white ceiling, ignoring the strange smells around him. He particularly ignored the unidentifiable smell on his pillow, bed and his thin blanket. When the lights went down, and the noise around him dropped to barely audible, he knew it was bedtime. The homeless shelter enforced strict rules, which they read to him when he received accommodation for two nights. He had arrived just in time before they closed admissions for the evening. By the time they assigned his bed, the mealtime was over. His stomach churned and his head pounded in hunger, but the staff wouldn’t open the kitchen to give him food. “You should have arrived earlier,” they said.
Tomorrow I’ll find some papers, and buy ink to write a rags-to-riches story. Who wouldn’t want to read a story of a homeless man who was the master of words? He patted his pocket to feel the folds of his cash, then he reached under the pillow to make sure that his wooden box with quill was still there. The next morning, Ike felt a bit exposed near his hip. He moved his hand down and felt a rip on his pants pocket. Sometime during the night, someone had sliced opened his pocket and taken all his money. He shot up and yanked his pillow; the wooden box was still there.
After breakfast at the shelter, Ike hiked several miles to a college library. From the recycling bin, he sorted through discarded papers and took out ten blank sheets. Now all he needed was some ink and money to buy that ink. Then an idea struck him. He hurried to the cafeteria, grabbed some plastic knives and found a quiet spot on the campus grounds. He sat on the grass with his legs crossed. Folding one of the sheets of paper, he fashioned it into a cup and secured it in the bend of his knee. Then he pulled out a plastic knife. Looking around him to make sure no one was watching, he then pressed the sharper edge of the knife on his wrist and sliced it open. Warm, dark red blood oozed out of an inch-long laceration. Ike held his wrist to the cup and collected his blood. He dipped the tip of the quill into the blood.
“Ok, quill. Write me that story about the traveler, and then write another about a homeless man who was secretly a powerful wizard.” He touched the tip to the paper.
Ike secured his fingers around the quill and in turn felt the force tightening around his wrist as it moved across the paper: Is this what you truly seek?
“Yes, damnit. Now write,” said Ike.
The quill moved across the paper again: Are you willing to suffer consequences? I destroyed your home, turned you into a stranger to your friends, and a nuisance to your family. I will destroy your body.
“That- That was you?” Ike asked.
“Return me back to my home, and I will restore your home,” the quill wrote.
“That was you? You did that?”
“Pay attention,” wrote the quill. “Tonight, a storm will arise over the sea. You will carry me into the waters and set me to the winds.” The quill freed its grip in Ike’s hands. Ike began to breathe rapidly from his mouth. He looked around him and then back at the paper.
With no money and no car to take him to the beach, his newly roused hopes to get his home back dashed again. It was hopeless. Still bleeding from his wound, he rose to his feet. He recalled the old man from the story and remembered that gold coin he received. Ike padded his shirt pocket, slipped his hand into it and pulled out a coin. It was a gold coin with an inscription of the feather on it. He breathed a sigh of relief and ran as fast as he could to the pawn shop. Ike sold the coin for $235. With cash in his pocket, he caught the afternoon train to Seaside Avenue.
After getting off the train, Ike followed the direction of the wind and pressed against it. The smell of the ocean permeated through the air, and the sea came into view. Rushing, ferocious waves crashed on the deserted beach. He felt compelled to enter the waves. At that moment Ike suspected that he was that main character in someone else's story.
As he pushed closer to the sea, the winds pushed him back and knocked him down. He crawled on his belly towards the ocean, his eyes and mouth shut against the onslaught of sand grains prickling against his face. Wet sand under him felt like clay that moved under him sinking him into place. A wave grew in height over him like a giant spoon and crash over him, rolled him in as an undercurrent pulled him into the water. Crushing weight of the waters pushed against his body from all around; he thought that the earth had swallowed him.
Surprisingly, he remained calm. “Death is imminent. Who is writing my story? Who is reading my story?”
An answer came to him from within. “You are your own reader of your story. Open your eyes.”
Ike opened his eyes. He was no longer in the ocean but in the ashram. The sage stood in front of him.
“You are the writer,” said Ike.
Sage looked at him expressionlessly.
Ike presented him the wooden box with the quill. “This belongs to you. I’m sorry for stealing it, and for my arrogance. I’m sorry for everything. Please send me home.”
The sage accepted the box and touched Ike's forehead.
Ike found himself sitting in his house, with his head resting on the desk. On his desk, he found a gold coin and a handwritten story of a man who lost his home in the storm but found himself on a path to recovery.