Sarah Beth Durst

Excerpt from The Stone Girl's Story

Chapter One

Turtle had stopped moving last week.

He'd warned Mayka and the others a year ago, when he first began to slow -- but he moved so slowly anyway that she hadn't believed him. Not really. She'd always thought they'd have one more afternoon. On the mountain, there was always another afternoon. Another sunset. Another sunrise. Until there wasn't.

She still visited him every day and talked to him as if he could hear her. He had moss growing on him over the faded markings on his shell, the way he liked it, but this morning, Mayka had had the idea he'd also like flowers. Yellow ones, like tiny suns. She decided to plant them in a circle around him, even though she knew he couldn't see them.

Kneeling next to him, she plunged her hands into the dirt, fingers first, using them like spades to dig a hole. She then picked up a flower, cupped its roots in her palms, and gently placed it in the hole. As she scooped dirt around the plant, she wondered what it would feel like to cry, like Father used to. When he was sad, tears would drip down his soft cheeks, curving through his wrinkles. She remembered she used to reach out and catch a tear on her finger. He'd tell her they tasted like the sea, which seemed miraculous to her.

Mayka would never cry. Like Turtle, she was made of stone, carved by Father long ago, and she couldn't cry, even when she very much wanted to.

"You picked a pretty spot to stop," she told Turtle, as she planted a second flower. He had chosen to stop on her favorite overlook, the one with the pine trees. I could stay here for hours, she thought. Even days. From here, she could see the sun spread across the valley, brightening the low-hanging morning mist until the mist shredded itself into strips of clouds. Far below, a river cut through the forests and fields. Reflecting the sky, it looked like a curling line of blue paint, with the forests as blots of dark green and the fields like smears of yellow and the quarries as patches of gray. It was so peaceful that she--

The pine trees rustled.

Immediately, Mayka held one hand up over her head.

Thwack.

A stone ball hit her palm. She closed her fingers around it.

"Throw me hard, Mayka!" the ball squeaked.

Well, it was peaceful, she thought. Sorry, Turtle. Standing, she wound her arm back and threw the stone as hard as she could. It sailed over the edge of the cliff.

"Woohoo!" the ball cried as it unfurled its wings. Feathers extended, the ball-that-was-really-a-bird swooped up and then looped in a figure eight before flying back to the cliff. He landed on a branch near Mayka and cocked his head so he was looking at her sideways. "Did that make you feel better? Because it made me feel better." When he wasn't curled into a ball, Jacklo looked like a gray songbird, with three tail feathers that stretched a few inches beyond his feet, carved out of smoky quartz. He had a crest of stone feathers on his head. "Are you okay, Mayka? Everyone's worried about you."

"I wanted to be alone, Jacklo," Mayka reminded him. She'd been clear this morning: she'd wanted a few hours with Turtle, to say goodbye. She'd informed all her friends at once, in hopes they'd listen. "I told you that."

"But now we can be alone together!" He nestled into the crook of the branch.

Mayka looked at him for a moment as she considered how to explain that wasn't what she meant. He won't understand, she thought. But she couldn't be angry with him. It was just the way he showed he cared. "Yes, Jacklo, we can."

Kneeling again next to Turtle, she planted another flower. Around her, the wind rustled the pine needles, making a shushing sound. She wondered what these flowers smelled like and if the wind would carry their scent down the mountain.

"Risa says I'm not good at being alone," Jacklo chattered. "She thinks I can't do it. She says I can't ever sit in silence and just--"

"Jacklo?"

"Yes, Mayka?"

"Silence means no talking."

"Oh. Right." He ruffled his feathers, which sounded like pebbles tumbling down a slope, then he fell quiet again.

She wiped a bit of dirt from the ridges around Turtle's eyes. He'd begun the trek here months ago, though it wasn't far from home. He'd pondered each step before laboriously shuffling forward. She should have realized--

"You know, sometimes when I listen to quiet, I hear all the noises in it, and it's not quiet at all," Jacklo said. "There's the wind and the birds and the bugs and--"

"Jacklo?"

"Sorry."

She dug the last hole. Turtle had realized on his own that the marks Father had carved on his stone shell to awaken him were fading -- rubbed away by wind, water, and time -- and he'd calculated how far he had to walk in the weeks he had left. He'd made it to the exact place he wanted before he stopped. She only wished she'd understood sooner. Without a stonemason to recarve his marks, Turtle would sleep forever.

"You know what, Mayka?"

Lowering the last plant into the hole, she said, "Yes, Jacklo? What is it now?"

In a tiny voice, he said, "I think I'm scared."

Mayka looked up at the bird. He was hunched over, with his shoulders up and his head ducked low. His wings were tight against his body. "You are? Why?"

"I don't want to become silent, like Turtle."

"Oh." And like that, her annoyance melted away. This she understood. She'd been trying hard not to think about exactly this for the past week. Me too, she thought, but she didn't say it out loud. Instead, she held up her hand. "Want me to throw you again?"

His head shot up, and his wings unfurled. "Only if it will cheer you up too."

"It will," she promised her friend. "We'll cheer each other up."

Pushing himself off the branch, he rolled into a ball as he flew toward her. She caught him, pivoted, and threw him as hard as she could.

He arched up toward the sun and then -- with another "woohoo!" -- flew higher. Circling around, he flew back to her hand. She caught him and threw him again, over and over, until the sun was high overhead and it was midday.

"I think . . . it worked, a little. Thank you, Jacklo." She smiled at him and realized she hadn't smiled in several days. Her cheeks felt stiff, as if they'd forgotten how to move without cracking. "Let's go home."

He flew in a circle above her and then up toward the trees. Several flesh-and-feathers birds were startled from their branches and also took to the sky, and for a second, Mayka lost track of which one was her friend as he swarmed with them over the pines.

Kneeling next to Turtle once more, she patted his head. "I'll come visit you again soon."

He didn't answer her. Deep in his long hibernation, he couldn't answer. But she still stayed beside him a few seconds more, out of habit or hope, before she trudged back through the pines toward home.

Needles crunched under her bare stone feet. She skipped over rocks in a stream that trickled between the trees, and then she walked out of the woods and into the sun. It warmed her as she climbed the slope, until she was as warm as the rocks on the mountainside.

Ahead, on a bluff below the peak, was home.

Still beautiful, she thought, despite all its years.

The house walls were marble that gleamed different colors in the sun, depending on the time of day: yellow in the morning, white in the afternoon, and dusky rose-blue in the evening. Its roof was slate, each tile carved like a petal, and the chimney was a spiral of basalt. Rocks were artistically positioned around the house and covered in wildflowers, and the garden was in front.

Their garden was full of plump heads of lettuce, rows of carrots, and overflowing vines of squash and pumpkins. Mayka and her stone friends didn't need the vegetables, since they didn't eat, but the chickens, goats, and rabbits liked them. After Father died, the owl, Nianna, and the cat, Kalgrey, had advised freeing the flesh-and-blood creatures and letting them fend for themselves with the wild animals on the mountain, but Mayka and the others had insisted on keeping them -- Dersy because they reminded him of Father, Jacklo because he thought they were fun, and Mayka because they made her feel as if she was part of life on the mountain, rather than watching it all pass by. Also, the chickens made her laugh.

Currently, they had four goats, sixteen chickens, and twelve rabbits. As she approached, Mayka saw the others were already feeding the goats their midday meal. Dersy, one of the two stone rabbits, was snipping lettuce leaves in the garden, using his ears as if they were shears, and then hopping with the greens over to the goat trough, while the stone cat, Kalgrey, carried delicately, with her sharp obsidian incisors, various scraps that had been rejected by the chickens -- hard-to-chew broccoli stems and melon rinds -- and added them to the meal.

Outside the goats' pen, the stone fish swam through a channel carved into the rocky ground and pressed their heads against a lever -- this changed the direction of the stream so that it sloshed into a second channel and poured into the goats' bucket. When the bucket was full, the fish pushed the lever in the opposite direction and cut off the flow.

Leaving the lettuce, Dersy hopped to the garden gate as Mayka reached it. Rising up on his hind legs, he pushed the gate open with his nose. "Welcome home, Mayka. You're late. I was beginning to worry."

She smiled for the second time in the same day. Dersy should have been carved like a mother hen, not a rabbit, she thought. He was always worrying about something or other: a chicken that had molted early, a carrot that had grown crooked--

He clucked his tongue against his buckteeth. "You were careful by Turtle's cliff, weren't you? If you fall and break, we can't fix you."

"Yes, Dersy, I was careful."

"Good. Now, come on, there are chores to do." He hopped across the garden. "First, could you please check Harlisona? I know you think I'm overreacting, but I think her marks are getting worse, and she refuses to let me look at her in decent light. You might have better luck."

Mayka froze for an instant, her smile etched on her face -- when Turtle had stopped moving, she'd told herself they didn't need to worry. He'd been the oldest of all of them, carved by Father before he even came to the mountain. The rest of them wouldn't slow for years and years. But it was getting harder and harder to believe that. Stay calm, she told herself. Don't let him know you're worried. It wouldn't do any good for Dersy to think she was beginning to agree with all his doom-and-gloom talk. Coming through the gate, Mayka followed him. "I'll take a look."

Lately it seemed like little things were always breaking. Their marble house was still beautiful, yes, but it had pockmarks from wind and hail, only visible if you looked closely at it, and a few of the roof tiles were broken. One of the troughs had cracked last month, and they'd patched it with mud that hardened in the sun. But worse were the marks of age on her friends. The lizard, Etho, had thin fissures between his scales. Nianna had chipped a feather, though luckily not a wing feather. And now Harlisona . . .

Mayka crossed the garden to the rabbits' warren. The two stone rabbits had dug themselves a hole beneath the hutch where the flesh-and-fur rabbits lived.

Over the years, they'd just kept digging. The ordinary-looking hole led to a maze of rabbit tunnels that stretched for miles and miles within the mountain -- up to the peak, around the summit, and all beneath the pine forest. It didn't serve any particular purpose that Mayka could see, but it made the rabbits happy. Harlisona spent most of her time digging. Mayka had lost track of how many years she'd devoted to burrowing.

Flesh rabbits didn't need an elaborate warren. They were happy enough in their hutch. Mayka plucked a bit of clover from the ground and pushed it between the mesh wire of the rabbit cage, and then she knelt down to talk to her friends. Content, the rabbits in the hutch nibbled and munched.

"Harli, it's Mayka! Can you come out?"

She listened, wondering if Harlisona was nearby or deep within the tunnels. If the latter, she might not come out for days. But a few seconds later, Mayka had her answer: she heard the scrabbling of stone against stone, and a second stone rabbit -- Harlisona -- poked her head out of the hole. She wrinkled her nose as if sniffing the air, even though she couldn't smell anymore than Mayka could, then hopped out.

"Do you mind if I take a look at you?" Mayka asked. "Just to check your marks." Maybe I'm overreacting. Surely we have decades and decades left. Dersy is a worrier, and Jacklo's so trusting he'll believe anything he's told. She'd examine Harli, then reassure Dersy and Jacklo that there was nothing to be scared of.

The rabbit nodded. She didn't talk much. Or really, at all. Not in years. She'd lost the mark for speech soon after Father had died -- it had chipped off in an accident, and they hadn't known how to fix it. Scooching closer, Harlisona let Mayka examine her back. Dirt clung to the grooves of the rabbit's markings, and Mayka gently cleaned it out with her fingers. She felt along the marks. The ridges were less sharp, and a few of the symbols were harder to read than she remembered.

Oh no. It is worse.

Mayka looked again at Dersy, more closely -- his marks weren't crisp anymore either. In fact, the one on his leg that said he could jump high looked chipped. Is it all of us? Ever since Turtle stopped, she'd been hoping it wasn't true. I've been lying to myself.

"Mayka, I know you don't want to hear it, but . . ." Dersy began.

"You're right," Mayka said. "I don't."

Stay calm, she told herself. Stone should be calm. She needed to steady herself and think. Crossing to the fishpond, she sat on a rock shaped like a tree stump and peered into the water. Streams fed into the pond, and they'd planted lilies all around it -- she didn't know how many years ago, but since then, the plants had spread and multiplied into a bank of curved green leaves. In the height of summer, they bloomed with orange flowers.

Back from giving water to the goats, the stone fish swam in lazy circles. Only three of Father's miraculous fish were left. He'd been so very proud of them, but the water eroded their markings quickly, and the ones that remained could no longer speak. We're all fading, she admitted. First the fish, then Turtle. Next, all of us.

We don't have decades.

Maybe not even years.

Maybe it was only months until the next one of them felt themselves slowing, or weakened and chipped. You need to face the truth, she told herself.

She held out her arm and twisted it in the sunlight to look at her marks. Father had carved her last, using every scrap of skill that he, the finest stonemason in the world, possessed to create a living stone girl. But even on her, the edges of her marks had begun to dull and the lines were less distinct, with curves in the symbols instead of sharp corners.

Jacklo landed on the rocks by one of the streams that fed the pond. He had a smear of dirt on his cheek and a sprig of leaves wedged between his stone feathers. He must have been playing in the woods again, instead of flying directly home. "Mayka, why were you planting flowers by Turtle?"

His sister, a stone bird named Risa, fluttered down beside him and smacked him with her wing. It clinked, the sound of stone hitting stone. "You bothered her this morning, didn't you?"

"Ow! And no. Well, yes, but no. She didn't want to be alone."

"She specifically said she wanted to be alone!"

Jacklo preened his feathers with his beak until they lay flat again, like slate tiles on a roof, perfectly ordered. "She was alone with me."

"That's not what that word means," Risa said, then her voice softened. "Mayka, you said you wanted to say goodbye, but you didn't, did you? Did you give Turtle flowers? Oh, Mayka, you know he can't see them anymore." Hopping closer, she laid the tip of her wing gently, comfortingly on Mayka's hand.

Looking away, Mayka didn't know how to answer her. It had just . . . felt right to do. Just like visiting him every day felt right. He was still part of the family, even if he slept.

"She's been telling him stories too," Jacklo added. "I heard her yesterday. She tried to read his story but couldn't, so she read him hers. Mayka, will you read us your story? Please, pretty please, with pinecones on top?"

Mayka studied her arm. Each mark on it was a piece of a story. Combined, they made her. If they rubbed away, like Turtle's . . . She didn't want to think about it. "How about I tell you one of Father's favorite stories instead?" she asked Jacklo. A story would make everyone feel better. Including me, she thought. "Once upon a time . . ."

Jacklo danced on the rock. "She's telling one! Everybody, come!"

"There was a little boy who was lonely. His mother and father worked hard in the city, and he was alone all day, every day. His house was too far from other houses for him to have any friends to play with, and he had no brothers or sisters. His only friend was a rock that sat in the middle of his family's garden."

The stone rabbits, Dersy and Harlisona, hopped over to the pond to listen.

"He talked to that rock every day. Told it about his dreams, his wishes, his thoughts, and when he ran out of all that, he started making up stories about the birds in the sky, the fish in the streams, and the adventures that he would go on if only he were old enough."

Out of the corner of her eye, Mayka saw her other stone friends emerge from around the house: the cat Kalgrey, the owl Nianna, the lizard Etho, and the badger who, like Turtle, was just called Badger. They formed a circle around her.

"One day, his father slept late and had to rush down the mountain to the city to work, and he forgot his tools. The boy tried to follow him to bring him his tools, but the boy's little legs were too slow, and so he returned home to the rock with the tools in his hands. His father worked as a builder in the city, constructing the bridges and roads that people used every day, and so his tools were hammers and chisels."

Jacklo sighed happily. "I love this part."

"Shhh," Risa hushed him.

"You love this part too."

Risa opened her beak, then shut it. "You're right. I do. Please, keep going, Mayka. 'The boy took the tools in his little hands . . .'"

Mayka smiled at the two birds and at the others who had come to listen. Even the fish were swimming closer to the surface of the pond. How many times had they gathered exactly like this to listen to her tell stories? She'd lost count -- the days blurred into one another, like afternoon dissolving into dusk. She'd thought they'd do this forever. "The boy took the tools in his little hands, and with a tap-tap-tap, he began to carve his stories into the rock, all the while talking to the rock and telling it tales. He worked through the day, through his lunch without stopping, through his naptime without stopping, until dinner, when his mother and father came home. And then at night, he snuck out again to the rock and kept carving."

Father had told her this story so many times she could almost hear his voice. Telling it made her feel as if he were there, with his hammer and chisel, ready to fix their marks so they'd last forever and none of them would have to worry or be afraid.

"When dawn came the next morning, the boy's father and mother went to the boy's bed to wake him -- and he wasn't there. Frightened, they searched all over the house, and then they ran outside . . . and found him curled up against his rock. As they hurried over, the rock spoke to them. 'Hush,' it said. 'He's sleeping.' And that is the tale of the first stonemason."

Mayka looked at her friends: the birds, the animals, the fish, all her father's creations. She felt a lurch inside of her that she couldn't name. Sooner rather than later, we'll all stop, she thought. Just like Turtle.

I can't let that happen.

"I think . . ." she said slowly, the idea taking shape, "we need a new stonemason." As she said the words, she felt them roll around in her mouth and in her head, and they felt right. The birds began to squawk, and the animals muttered and chittered to one another. Yes, that's what we need, she decided. A stonemason, like Father! A stonemason could recarve their marks, maybe even awaken Turtle and the other fish! And then everything would go back to the way it was supposed to be.

Fluttering his feathers, Jacklo chirped, "But, Mayka, we don't know any! We don't know anyone. How can we--"

Mayka stood up on the rock, beside the pond, and looked beyond the garden, toward the pine forest and the valley below. She balled her hands into fists and tried to sound brave. "I'm going to find one."

 

Chapter Two

Very brave words, Mayka congratulated herself. But Jacklo's right. I don't know any stonemasons. There weren't any on the mountain. She'd been all over it, and only Mayka's family and the woodland animals lived on the forested slopes. If I want to find one, I'll have to leave.

"Ooh, ooh, an adventure!" Jacklo chirped.

Risa shushed him.

With a whimpering moan, Harli curled into a ball, tucking her head under her front paws. The other rabbit, Dersy, hopped in a tight circle at Mayka's feet. "Yes! This is what I've been saying! We must act, before it's too late! One of us must go down into the valley, find a stonemason, and ask him to come visit us."

Go down into the valley. He said it so simply, but it was a thing none of them had ever done. A real adventure, out in the world beyond the mountain! Mayka felt as if the stone within her was churning. She'd never planned to journey beyond. Everything she ever wanted was right here -- but it won't be if I don't fix this, she thought. "I will do it. I'll leave today."

The stone owl, Nianna, swiveled her head to fix her polished black stone eyes on Mayka. "No one is going anywhere. Least of all on an adventure. Father wanted us to stay here and be safe, and that is what we will do."

Yes, he had wanted that. She remembered how he used to like to stroll around the house at dusk -- he had a routine: check on the chickens, the goats, the rabbits; view the garden; lock the gates -- before he'd come inside and light the candles on the table in the cottage. He knew every inch of their home. It's our sanctuary, he liked to say. Nothing here will ever harm you. It used to make him so happy, to know they were all safe here.

But we aren't safe here, she thought. Time has found us.

"There will be stonemasons in the valley," Mayka said. "All I have to do is find other stone creatures and ask them to guide me to whoever carved them."

"Guide us," Jacklo said.

"Guide me," Mayka corrected. "There's no need for more than one of us to go."

Spreading her wings, Nianna glided from her perch onto a rock beside the pond. "My darling girl, our darling girl, you are so very young and so very brave. Father carved you well, and we are all proud of you. But this plan -- it's madness. We don't belong in the valley. We are made to stay here, safe, together."

Father had come from the valley. He hadn't talked about it often, but she knew that much. He'd been born in the city of Skye, a cluster of lights that she saw far below and far away at night. They looked like clumps of stars, and she remembered she'd once asked him why so many stars had fallen in the same place. He'd laughed and told her she was seeing lanterns clustered together, like bees in a hive. But when she asked him to tell her more, he told her a story instead.

"Do you remember the story of the two brothers?" Mayka asked.

Nianna clicked her beak open and shut. "Whoooo? The fools?"

"They were acrobats," Jacklo said stoutly, "not fools!" Gallant Jacklo, Mayka thought. He'd defend anyone who was attacked, including two mythical brothers.

"Fooooools," the owl said.

Mayka thought back to the story. She hadn't told it in a while, but she never forgot a tale. "Once there were two brothers who lived in the sky--"

The cat, Kalgrey, snorted.

"That is how it begins," Risa said. "Let her tell it."

Kalgrey lifted one paw and licked between her toes. "Of course. If she wants to tell that version. If she wants to tell the truth, she'll begin with the baby. It was her crying that led the brothers out of the sky."

"Yes, yes, but that comes later, Kalgrey," Dersy said. He thumped his hind paw on the ground, a nervous twitch that made the flesh-and-fur rabbits freeze in their hutch. When no hawk dove from the sky, they relaxed and returned to chomping their lunch. "Go ahead, Mayka."

Mayka settled back down on the rock. "The two brothers argued all the time, and every time they fought, the valley would shake with thunder and lightning. It was so bad that the people would send men and women up into the mountains to talk to the sky brothers and beg them to stop and leave the valley in peace . . . but the sky brothers were so busy yelling at each other that they never heard the humans pleading. Now, it came to pass one day that they had both yelled so much that they had to take a breath at the same time . . . and in that breath of silence, they heard a sound."

"The baby's cry," Kalgrey said, with a thwack of her tail on the rock. Mayka wondered what the cat thought of her idea to find a stonemason. She always disapproved of everything -- it was her nature. But does she dislike my idea or Nianna's rejection of it?

"Be nice," Risa said to the cat. "Mayka's telling a story, and the rest of us want to listen."

"I'm never nice," Kalgrey said. "I'm a cat. Read my story if you doubt me." Stretching herself, she arched her back, displaying a series of marks: This is Kalgrey the cat. Sharp of tongue and claws, nimble of paws and mind. She climbed to the top of the chimney and scolded the sun and then slept when it hid, frightened, behind a cloud.

"Look here," Mayka said, pointing to another mark on the cat's back. "You curl up every night by the door to watch over us, and you keep the rats out of the chicken feed," she read.

The cat sniffed. "That's duty, not niceness."

Jacklo fluttered his wings. "Can't Mayka finish her story?"

"Not if it ends with her leaving," Kalgrey said, but then she curled around Mayka, which for Kalgrey was as close as she ever got to an apology.

Mayka rubbed Kalgrey behind the ears and continued her story. "The sky brothers heard the baby cry, and they came down into the valley, somersaulting and flipping from cloud to cloud, and when each brother saw the other brother hurrying to the baby, it only made him flip higher and somersault faster until by the time the two of them reached the earth, they'd generated so much wind that they'd blown everything around the baby away: the houses, the people, the trees, even the river. The baby lay on a blanket alone in the center of an empty open field."

"How come the baby didn't blow away?" Jacklo asked. "That never made sense to me. If the wind was strong enough to redirect a river, shouldn't the baby be airborne too?"

"Stories don't have to make sense," Risa told him.

"It's nice when they do."

"But they don't have to. So listen."

"One brother, who had sunset-red hair, reached the baby first and said, 'Why are you crying? You don't have a brother who vexes you every day. You are all alone. You should be happy.' And he scooped up the baby and began to dance with her all around the empty field." Mayka liked to picture him dancing like wind, his feet barely touching the grass. She smiled as she told this part of the story. "When he stopped dancing, the baby cried again. And the second brother, who had twilight-blue hair, said to the baby, 'Why are you crying? You aren't all alone. You have earth beneath you, the sky above you, and me to make you laugh.' And he began to perform tricks, transforming himself into different shapes: a tree, an elephant, a rabbit, a dragon, for his body was like a cloud and easy to change. The baby cooed and clapped. 'See, she likes me better,' the blue-haired brother said.

"'I made her laugh first,' the red-haired brother said.

"'But I made her laugh harder.'

"And they argued and argued, and as they fought, they rose higher into the air, and the sky stormed around them. Left behind on the ground, the baby began to cry once more. So the brothers hurried back, and each began endless tricks, flips, and somersaults until the babe was laughing again. This continued until the sun set in the sky, and soon the baby, hungry and cold, began to cry in earnest, and neither brother could console her."

Nianna snapped her beak open and shut. "Fools I called them, and fools they were. This was a child made of flesh and blood, not clouds and sunlight."

"What happened to the baby?" Dersy asked.

"For the sake of the baby, the brothers stopped arguing," Mayka said. "The storms ceased, and the people came back to the valley. They fed the baby, clothed her, and built homes for themselves and her. Eventually, those homes became a town, then a city, which was named Skye after the brothers. And the two sky brothers stayed earthbound, performing tricks and flips for the children of the city, making them laugh instead of cry."

As she finished the story, Mayka felt even more certain she was making the right decision. She could tell the tale had worked on the others too. Everyone had calmed down. The fish were swimming in slower circles, and Kalgrey had closed her eyes as if asleep. Badger had waddled back into the bushes, and Etho lay still on a sunlit rock. Even Nianna seemed less ruffled.

"The people in the valley will help us," Mayka said quietly. "Like they helped the baby."

Nianna sighed. "Very well. But we must not all go. Our father wouldn't have wanted that. One is sufficient for this task. Therefore, only one will go. Only Mayka, if she's willing."

"I will go, ask for a stonemason, and return with him," Mayka promised. "He'll recarve us, and then everything will go on as it has before. You'll see."

*     *     *

It should have been simple to pack.

No food. (She didn't eat.) No blankets. (She didn't sleep.) Her clothes were stone, carved as part of her, and her bare stone feet had never worn shoes. Mayka circled through the cottage and wondered what she did need to bring.

Sunlight filtered through the windows in long shafts, illuminating specks of dust. It made the kitchen sparkle as if coated in gold flecks. Nothing in here, she thought -- she hadn't touched the forks and knives since Father died. His plates and bowls had become birdbaths out in the garden, and his pots served as extra water bowls for the goats.

The bathroom had been converted to an extra chicken coop years ago, the stone tub filled with grain for the winter months. And as for the two tiny bedrooms . . . she had filled hers with rocks she'd collected over the years. A nice piece of quartz with streaks that looked like clouds. A chunk of basalt. Flakes of mica. One rock with an imprint of an ancient fern and another a piece of amber with a fly suspended in it.

She'd left Father's bed untouched.

Her most precious possessions were in the heart of the cottage. Above the mantel was a row of clay figures, the models that Father had made before he carved her friends from stone. There was one for each of them, except for her -- he'd said she was his masterpiece, born from his heart, and he'd needed no model for her. She loved looking at the figurines. Even in clay, he'd captured Dersy's worry in the way his ears perked, Harli's shyness in the curve of her shoulders, and Jacklo's endless energy in the shape of his outstretched wings. Mayka touched each one, skimming her fingers over the clay. Hairline cracks ran through all of them, so she didn't dare move them. They'll have to stay here, she thought. As much as she wanted to take a token of her friends with her, she couldn't risk breaking them.

Equally precious, her father's tools hung on the wall by the hearth, in a place of honor. She fetched a cloth from beside the sink and cleaned the tools, polishing them until they shone again: his hammers, his chisels, his rasps. One by one, she returned them to the wall, exactly the way Father had left them when he'd told her he'd carved his last.

In the end, she packed nothing, because everything she touched seemed to belong exactly as it was.

I belong here too, she thought. Exactly as I am.

But she knew she wouldn't stay exactly as she was, not without help.

"I'll miss you," she told the house.

It didn't answer, though Mayka still felt as if it heard her. The house was stone too, built from marble blocks that Father had carved out of the mountainside and hauled here, long before he'd made her. He'd told her once how it had taken so many days that it was months before he had even one wall and years before he had all four. He'd lived under a canvas tarp, like a traveler, and worked on his home every day. On the inside of the house, onto each stone block, he'd carved pictures: flowers, trees, birds, and animals, and she had painted them with paints he'd made from crushed berries and plants. The paint was faded now. I should repaint them.

Looking around the cottage, she saw many things that should be done: the quilt on Father's bed should be washed, the jar of honey that drew bees to the garden had to be refilled, the flowers she'd picked to brighten the table had shed a circle of petals around the vase . . .

She puttered around the house, neatening and washing and fixing, until the shafts of sunlight faded and shadows began to spread.

Jacklo landed on the windowsill. "Mayka? Are we going on our adventure now?"

"We aren't going," she corrected him. "I am." She didn't know what to expect in the valley. It was best if she went alone and didn't risk anyone else. "You heard Nianna. Only one is needed for this."

Gathering up her courage, Mayka walked out the door -- and saw sunset. Rosy clouds filled the sky above the mountains, and the valley was already deep in shadows.

Kalgrey curled around her ankles. "You missed the light," the cat said.

"Darkness won't hurt me," Mayka said. But she hadn't meant to leave at night. In every story, adventures always began on a crisp, clear day. I shouldn't have delayed.

"You could trip and fall and break in the darkness," Kalgrey said. "Don't be foolish." In cat speak, that was almost I love you.

Risa flew to them and landed on Mayka's shoulder. "She's right. It isn't practical to leave at night. Begin at dawn. Like a bird."

"Or. Don't. Leave. At. All," Etho the lizard said. He always talked slowly, each word punctuated by a flick of his tongue.

"I'll be back soon," Mayka promised. She estimated that it would take her a day to reach the valley, a day or two to find a stonemason, and another day to return -- less than a week. I can be away for less than a week, can't I? It was a snap of the fingers, compared to how long they'd lived here. Badger had once spent an entire week studying a single mushroom, and Jacklo had once devoted two weeks to thinking up every rhyming word he could. "Come on, let's feed the animals."

While the stone rabbits readied the greens for the flesh rabbits, Etho slunk off his rock to gather mushrooms in the forest for the goats. Badger tossed seeds to the chickens, and the stone fish refilled the water buckets.

Mayka let herself into the coop, and the chickens clustered around her, pecking at her feet. She shooed them back as Badger threw them another pawful of seeds. She checked the roosts for fresh eggs -- they could be given to any foxes or predators from the forest who were tempted to snack on either the chickens or the rabbits. Nianna, with her night vision, would watch for them while Kalgrey patrolled the fences.

"Will you all be okay while I'm gone?" Mayka asked.

Sitting on a fence post, Kalgrey spread her claws and made a show of examining them. Father had worked hard to make her claws retractable -- each claw was made of diamond. "I will take care of the chickens."

"Very funny," Mayka said.

"If I wasn't meant to hunt, Father wouldn't have given me instincts. But I will try to leave the chickens intact. Can't understand why you like them. Messy creatures. You do realize you will be among lots of messy creatures in the valley, don't you? Not only chickens, but humans and their flesh creatures. Horses, donkeys, pigs, dogs." At the word dogs, Kalgrey shuddered all the way to the tip of her tail.

Jacklo fluttered down on the fence beside the cat. "Oh! What if you meet others like us? What if you like them better than us? What if you don't want to come back?" Agitated, he flapped his wings to demonstrate his bravery -- and promptly fell off.

He righted himself. "Meant to do that."

Squatting, Mayka dusted him off. "Of course I'll come back. This is home! And you're my family." All of them drew closer, clustering around her.

Badger, the oldest of them now that Turtle slept, pushed forward and took her hand in his large paws. His voice creaked, for he seldom used it, and his words were stilted, as if he were reciting poetry. "We are family. No blood binds us, for we have no blood, but we are bound by time and love. You will carry our love and hope with you to the valley, and it will strengthen you."

Mayka looked at all her friends, and she felt warm, as if the sun shone on her brightly. I'll go in the morning, she told herself. "Will you all watch the stars with me tonight?"

They climbed, flew, or were helped onto the roof of the cottage as the last of the sun dropped out of sight and deeper blueness spread across the arc of the sky. Lying side by side, they watched the stars pop out one by one, until the sky was filled with so many that they could see stars between the stars.

Sometime late in the night, she told an old story about the stars. And then a tale of the pine forest. And then another about birds learning to fly.

Together, they watched the stars until dawn.

And at dawn, Mayka climbed down from the roof and began to walk -- away from the cottage, away from home, taking nothing and leaving everyone.

 

Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Clarion Books.

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ISBN: 9781328729453

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