Blank Slate

stone book

Of all the seasons, Jerilynn loved winter the most.

Granted, icy drafts would slip under doors and make her shiver even as she sat by the fire. The chickens still needed to be fed and the cows milked no matter how thick the snow piled up. And they all got desperate for the taste of something fresh-picked from the garden.

But it was all worth it because the long nights meant they had time for stories.

All she had to do was rock the baby or handle the most urgent mending project, and her mother would pull their book of fairy tales down from its shelf. Bound in leather, with many thin pages, it boasted more stories than winter had nights.

Winter gave way to the exuberance of spring, and telling stories was no excuse for idle hands, since keeping all the bellies filled seemed like it took every bit of time and then some. But Jerilynn wished someone would at least try to add a little magic to the world. Adult conversations usually focused on the small events of their town, like whether it was time to repair the cobblestones in the town’s central square or whitewash the schoolhouse. Entire meetings in the town hall were devoted to such things.

Fortunately, her attendance at such events was not required. Instead of wasting the fine spring morning listening to adults argue, she skipped past the town hall and small shops lining the square, and headed straight for the schoolyard. She’d arrived early, hoping to spend some time with her friends before lessons. But her steps slowed, and she ground to a halt. At the far edge of the square, in front of the schoolhouse, stood a massive stone book.

As tall as the tallest man in town, and even wider across, it lay with its pages open to the sky. A carved stand supported its great weight, but no words or pictures adorned its polished surface. Jerilynn ran her gaze over it in awe. Where had it come from? Surely this majestic book must have some grand purpose. Her fellow students gathered around her in unaccustomed decorum, keeping their puzzled queries to whispers, as if the book could somehow be scared away like a skittish colt. Greatly daring, she reached out to touch it.

“Stand back. Move aside I say!” The mayor’s querulous voice cut through the children’s fascination, and they reluctantly shifted to the side. But even with the adults crowding in front, the stone book still tugged at Jerilynn’s gaze.

“What is it?”

“Where did it come from?”

“Is it a threat?”

“Who did this?”

The people began firing questions at the mayor, who looked as though he regretted taking charge quite so soon. He pulled out a large handkerchief and mopped his brow, though the day had barely begun to warm.

“Good people, we have no idea who is responsible. Is there anyone in town who could move this, this…object so quickly and quietly? Did anyone witness anything?”

Apparently, no one had. The adults drifted toward the square as they argued, and Jerilynn edged closer to the stone book. Ignoring the quiver in her stomach, she stroked the stony pages with a fingertip. The book actually seemed to hum a little in response. She stayed there, wrapped in the sheer wonder of it, until the students were called inside.

The teacher stood in front of the class and explained that there was no reason to think they were in any danger. Only the good manners her mother had drilled into her kept Jerilynn from snorting. Of course the stone book wasn’t a threat—anyone could see that.

But as she walked home that day, the comments all around her made it clear the other townspeople didn’t share this sweet certainty. She overheard several demands that the thing be hauled away or destroyed.

No! Tears sprang to her eyes, and Jerilynn ran the rest of the way home. She threw open the kitchen door, and her mother took one look at her face and exclaimed, “Why, whatever is the matter?”

Jerilynn burst into full-blown sobs, and her mother gathered her close and stroked her blonde hair. Jerilynn gasped out the story, overwhelmed that anyone would even consider destroying the stone book. It was the only magic their town had ever seen.

“Don’t fret yourself,” her mother said in the same voice she used to calm the chickens and geese. She pulled back and held her daughter by her shoulders so Jerilynn would meet her gaze. “People are always looking for reasons to talk, and that stone book is the strangest thing that’s happened in this town since…well, as long as I can remember. Things will settle down again. And nobody’s going to spend the effort to haul the thing away, especially not during planting season. You’ll see.”

Jerilynn dried her sniffles, reassured by her mother’s calm logic. And in the days that followed, demands for the stone book’s removal dwindled, and concerns over it were eclipsed by a late storm that pounded the young corn sprouting in the fields.

By the time summer arrived, the mayor had decided on a plan of action. He stood in front of the town hall, dressed in his finest suit, to explain it to them. “Dear people, I have heard your concerns. We’ve debated about them in council. So far, the stone book doesn’t appear to be a threat, and we’ve all got better things to do than haul it away. So, we have decided to turn the thing into an asset. We’ll carve a great welcome to our town on its surface, and other towns will be envious of the huge monument in our square. All we have to do is complete it.”

The townspeople traded glances, and most of them began nodding. Jerilynn could see why. As an idea, it had that certain something.

She could picture visitors to their town, consumed with curiosity, asking questions about the book, and also herself telling them the tale, while they hung on every word. It was a pleasant picture, and she told the book about it, since everyone else seemed too busy talking to do much listening.

When she reached out to touch the stone pages afterward, the book hummed at her again. Perhaps it liked the idea of being completed?

Funds were soon set aside for the project, and a stonemason was hired. He showed up for work the next morning, and Jerilynn gave him a brilliant smile from the square, where she was waiting for her mother to finish buying potatoes. His crooked grin flashed briefly in reply.

But that was the only smile Jerilynn saw on his face during the coming days. The stone surface not only resisted being chiseled, it shrugged off all attempts as if they were so many raindrops. The smith was called in—he not only sharpened the mason’s chisels, he forged him new ones, of the finest tempered steel.

None of it did any good. The book’s pages remained resolutely blank. Hiring another mason had no effect, and neither did several attempts to paint the polished gray surface. As the paint dried, it evaporated, leaving the book the same as the day it arrived in town.

At an impromptu meeting in front of the book, the tailor declared, “That thing will make our town a laughingstock. People will think we couldn’t even figure out what to carve on our own monument. It has to go!”

Jerilynn’s mother put a comforting hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “He’s far too spindly to do anything about it.”

But the other townspeople grew fearful, and people began muttering that the book was uncanny and unnatural. Jerilynn shuddered. She had to think of something, anything, before matters got out of hand. Judging by the comments she’d overheard, it was only a matter of time.

That evening she waited for the moon to rise, and then she did something she’d never even contemplated before. She snuck out her window and ran for the town square.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the stone book still in its accustomed spot, as unchanged as ever. Then she explained her concerns to its stony pages, finishing with, “So, if you want to be completed, you’d better let someone do something about it soon. Otherwise, they’ll figure out a plan to haul you away. And that can’t happen!”

Her tears fell on the book’s stony surface, but they left only brief trails before rolling off onto the grass. The book didn’t seem to understand, and tears wouldn’t solve this. But what would?

Over the next several weeks, she spent every spare moment on her quest to save the book. She was grateful for the long summer evenings, for they allowed her time to stay up after dinner, writing down her ideas and scratching them out again. She needed something that would both flatter the townspeople and tell the book what it needed to do.

But as summer drew to a close, several men showed up with a great cart full of stout, newly-hewn logs. “We’re going to need a mighty scaffold to shift this thing,” the stonemason called out gleefully.

She shot him a glare for seeking revenge over his stupid pride, but this affected him not in the least. And the answering cries of the other men made it clear they believed their task was worth the labor they were spending on it. She ran home and hid in the chicken coop to work on her notes.

“Jerilynn, we must talk,” her mother said the following evening, and unusually, her voice was stern. She pointed to the substandard buttonholes Jerilynn was haphazardly stitching. “It’s not right for you to neglect your chores. Now I’ll have to stay up late to finish that shirt. What is wrong with you lately?”

Jerilynn gritted her teeth against more tears. “I’m sorry, truly I am. But there’s something I’ve been working on, something important.” She poured her heart out, describing all she’d done, and she pulled out her messy notes, worked and reworked with many cross-outs.

A fine line appeared between her mother’s brows as she read. “I don’t know if this will work,” she said finally, and Jerilynn’s heart sank. “However,” and here a brief smile erased some of the weariness from her mother’s face, “I think it’s important that you get the chance to try. Shall we go tonight?”

Jerilynn jumped up and threw her arms around her mother’s neck. “Thank you, thank you,” she whispered.

That night, after her younger brother and sister were asleep, Jerilynn’s mother came to get her, and what’s more, she brought along an iron pot with a coal from the stove and a new candle.

Jerilynn darted several quick glances around as they neared the town square, but the only sounds came from the tavern, over a block away. Her mother seated herself on one of the wooden benches nearby, and she lit the candle before making a shooing gesture.

Jerilynn tried to calm the butterflies in her stomach as she tiptoed up to the massive book. If this didn’t work, she had no idea what else she could try.

She reached out to touch the stone pages gently, and then she read from her notes, keeping her eyes resolutely on them. As long as she couldn’t see that her plan wasn’t working, she could find the courage to keep going.

When she reached the end, she looked up at the book, trying not to hope too much. Her heart sunk. The polished surface remained unchanged.

But then, as if carved with an invisible chisel, words appeared. “Once upon a time, there was a town that thought it was ordinary, until the day the stone book arrived.”

Jerilynn heaved a sigh of relief as the rest of the words began to appear. It was finally safe.

Avid writer and reader of Faerie tales and noblebright fantasy.

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Posted in My Stories
33 comments on “Blank Slate
  1. I really enjoyed this story, Cathleen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dan Antion says:

    This is so nice. It was lovely to read this first thing in the morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] “Blank Slate” by Cathleen Townsend […]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. aebranson says:

    There was a real feel to this story: I liked how you began telling us about the fairy tales Jerilynn enjoyed listening to before we get to the appearance of the book. It not only gave her great appreciation for it, but because she and her mother were so well acquainted with those fairy tales, they were able to figure out how to get an inscription on the book. Nicely done!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is really lovely. I can picture the stone book, I’m glad that Jerilynn worked it out.. well written.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you can picture the stone book. That was a part that I wrestled with for a while. Describe too much and it bogs down, but give it too little and readers get confused. It seems like a constant balancing act to find the sweet spot. : )

      Like

  6. I really enjoyed the opening paragraphs – they set up the love for magic pretty well.
    Of course, the town would want to get rid of a stone book. If it was a stone cell phone, it would probably be left alone. You shone the light nicely and people’s principles and priorities.
    We don’t do well with things we can’t explain. Fear and violence are our knee-jerk responses. But sometimes we just need to be patient and keep thinking of a better way – just like our main character here.

    Nice story. I could not stop reading until I got to the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Worthy of being included in any anthology of modern fairy tales. Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a lovely story, Cathleen. I can definitely see this as an illustrated children’s story. The ending is so magical. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, Cathleen! This was beautiful and magical, and flawlessly written. It reminded me a little of hearing stories from my grandmother, when I was very small. Beneath the magic and wonder, there’s a very astute observation on the workings of politicians and governments — almost satirical. A wonderful story, it works on so many levels!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Joshua. Satire about sums up my view of politics generally, or at least human nature. I’m glad you like it–I struggled with it a bit. Went through critique, wrote a new opener, strengthened the “death of the only magic they’d ever known” thread. I never want to hit that sort of thing too hard, and then sometimes you wonder if you hit it hard enough. Finding the Goldilocks place can be a challenge. : )

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Gary says:

    Wonderful Cathleen. The merger of fairytale within a fairytale. My first thought was 2001 A Space Odyssey with the monolith. That and the recent spoof ones that started appearing all over. Imagine it though, walking along to find an obelisk where it wasn’t the day before. As others mention the political “no idea” satire oozes through.

    Very well written and a joy to read. There better be more from you in the BlogBattle now ha ha

    Liked by 1 person

    • How interesting–I never thought of 2001, but you’re right, the inciting events are remarkably similar. I’m glad you liked it, and I am planning to be a regular Blog Battle participant again. : )

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gary says:

        I thought maybe the recent monolith appearances might have been the inspiration for the idea about the appearance of the Stone book. Even more kudos if it wasn’t as it’s a great concept. Awesome to hear you intend on being a regular again too.

        If you ever do NaNoWriMo I’ve been in discussion with Rachael about setting up a writing group there for BB people to tackle the camps in April and July. The working idea is to take a favourite BB piece, set a personal target and just see where it goes. We think maybe 10 to 15k words might be good over the month it rolls for. Repeat it in July. Would you be interested?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sure, I’ll give it a try, except it would be with a new piece. If I write for Blog Battle, it’s almost always a short story.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Gary says:

          Brilliant! There will be a post on February 12th giving more info. A new piece is absolutely fine. I think using a prompt base might encourage people who don’t really know where to begin. Most have heard of NaNo and either found it too daunting or find time hard to find. Not so many know about the Camp structure. Much better to get a habit up with support from experienced writers. Thanks Cathleen

          Liked by 1 person

  11. Sweet story, Cathleen. It’s a simple and yet profound. I was particularly happy with how persistent Jerilynn was, but also how her softhearted kindness showed through in every aspect of her character.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jennie says:

    I really enjoyed this story!

    Liked by 1 person

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