It is late autumn when you steal my finger. You climb into the waterless fountain bed, into the sea of October leaves and touch my hand. My lichen clothing has grown slick in the sodden air. The cracks creasing my stone finger joint give in and the digit comes away. You hold it and look up at me. Your face is open like a bud in spring, with all the round smoothness of the underside of a petal, untouched. Untroubled. My own features have worn away. You don’t know if ever I was supposed to be male or female. A knuckled twig is tangled in your hair. Shouts of your friends ring through the trees that run wild at this end of the garden.
You wonder whether taking the stone finger of a crumbling statue is stealing. There are no grownups here to decide.
Can you hear me? For a moment, maybe you hesitate. Another version of you drops it, to be covered by falling leaves. But then the finger vanishes, stuffed into a pocket of your padded coat, and your mud-slicked boots carry you away, towards the echoing cries of your playmates.
Long ago, a version of me walked away from this place, to follow the stone-strewn paths away. Instead I stopped here and turned to stone. Now, a part of me goes with you.
Above, the branches bare themselves at the sky, then sprout green again. A couple walk hand-in-hand, but stop before they reach this hidden place, turning back towards the ornamental gardens. The fountains there are overflowing, the way mine was. I froze in time, but nothing freezes time. A group of painters pitch easels, rooting them firmly in the mulch. They swoop brushes over their canvases, until rain sends them off. Birds nest in a hollow of the fountain. My features wear away. They would erode just the same if I were skin and bone.
You are taller when you return. You are still growing into your body, sprouting in new directions, but your face has changed. Instead of that unfurling, your petal smoothness is marred as if with knocks. You sit on the fountain’s edge, on the other side to the birds. You have noticed them, and you are careful. Gentleness surrounds you and you move slowly through the thunder-thrumming air. Do you move cautiously through the world beyond this place? Ahead of you are still a thousand paths. Your nails rasp around the hillock of an insect bite on your calf. Out of a new rucksack, you take your fresh workbooks, and you touch the crisp, unbent corners, remove the lid of a fountain pen then click it back on. A gift for starting this new chapter.
You are caught in the past and present of this place, and you take something from a zippered pocket. My stone finger, with its slight curve, almost but not quite pointing. Stillness and sunlight drift down onto your shoulders.
Your visits lessen over the years. Once, roiling with anger and wearing all black, you come here. It is cold and there is no one to dress you in coats and scarves anymore. You are shivering. Your eyes rest on me and see an unchanging statue.
The rage dissipates into the air. It leaves an emptiness in its wake, like the trail from a sparkler on these cloud-breathing nights. You unclench your hands. Your nails are bitten to the quick, raw red crescents tipping each finger. You swing your leg over the edge of the fountain, stroke your thumb over my stone-grit skin. Just as you did before. As others have done before you, and will come to do again, before they spiral away and disappear.
The smell of winter, steel and fire smoke. You have the look of a person who has been away, and then returned. You have brought someone with you. They are dressed for the ornamental topiary, not here at this end of the gardens where the paths dissolve. They are flat and dense and elsewhere. You lace your fingers through theirs, tug them towards me. Your eyes are wide and reflect the fractures of light spilling through the leaves. You point, to show them but they have taken out a phone.
Next time, you are alone. You drift down the overgrown path, around the fountain, beneath the shifting eternal trees. You are everywhere and nowhere. You are that child teetering on the lip of the fountain, the woman who sat on the stone bench sending cautious feelers out into the world. Laughter echoes down the years.
When did you begin to turn to stone? Was it the first time you faced turned backs? When your words were thrown back, or faded into the dark, or went unheard. Each barbed rejection a shock as you tried to blossom, and unfurl. A thousand tiny hurts until, battered by storms, cast out, you came back here.
Your eyes are full of rain. You sit for so long on the stone bench that the warbling of the birds starts again. Above the leaves skitter together. You are as still as I am.
Night settles. The foxes yowl and creep amongst the tree roots. You are greyer in the darkness, still unmoving. You get colder. The tendrils of wind do not lift your hair.
This place is like standing between mirrors. I remember. The past and the future stretch in every direction. But you are choosing to stand still, to let the coldness creep across your skin, and stop your heart mid-beat.
You try to look up. Your eyelids are stone. I will you to change your mind, to find out what gleaming version of yourself might walk these paths again. I want to shout it. Do not stay in this moment when it seems as if the night will never end.
But only silence.
By morning, you are gone.
Alice Langley is a writer and theatre-maker based in Glasgow. Her work has appeared in Second Chance Lit, and Not Deer Magazine. Her creative non-fiction can be found in Potluck Zine and is forthcoming in Asylum Magazine. Her home is welcome to stray cats, and stories, and she finds her inspiration in the works of Carmen Maria Machado, an adventurous cheeseboard, and walks in the rain.