The Seventh Blue

The Seventh Blue
bb_matt

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audio of Tobey Hiller's story, The Seventh Blue

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The Seventh Blue

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One

On the outskirts of town, a young man who’s not where he should be encounters a mangy-looking black dog nosing around in the municipal garbage dump.  The dog comes up, looking friendly, and the young man, stretching his hand out idly to be sniffed, notices something blue on its neck.   Looking closer, he discovers a large blue stone peeking out from the greasy black hair at the base of the dog’s cranium. It’s seemingly set in the bone of the skull itself.  The thing glitters; sun bounces off it into his eyes, splintering his thought into something like tinder or debris.  Unconsciously he has taken a step back, fingers tingling.  Is it a disease?  Could it actually be a gem?

In the explosive noon light, he wonders briefly whether the dog is a ghost or dream, but when the animal, smelling hotly of dog hair and afternoon, continues standing there, its tongue lolling out between its teeth, panting, his thought takes a different turn.  How priceless the skull of a dog with an embedded precious stone must undoubtedly be.  How scientists, collectors—people like that—people looking for proofs or miracles, would scramble after the unlikeliness of it, their wallets disgorging green . . . and then as he stands there it seems to him his luck, frequently unreliable, has suddenly improved.  His mind closes tight around the stone, or better, the skull with the stone still stuck in it.  He begins talking to the dog in a wheedling tone, intending to lure it toward his truck. He has a rifle stowed under the seat.  But the dog hangs back, peers at him suspiciously.  Suddenly it shies off and lopes away toward town.

Sweat pops out on the young man’s palms and forehead.  He hightails it back to his truck and drives fast into town, where he just manages to catch a glimpse of the dog disappearing into the leafy shadow of a main avenue.  He runs a stop sign and makes a blind pass around a truck to keep up.  Loping steadily, the dog turns two corners and crosses a large square, leaving his pursuer, cursing and leaning helplessly on his horn, mired in traffic on the far side.  Now the dog, who has begun to look to the young man more and more like one of those dawns you’ve already and irrevocably slept through, turns into a side street called Lilac.  By the time his pursuer, now beet red and panting, turns down this street, the dog has trotted up the front path of a certain house and round to the shady garden in back, where the lady of the house, a solitary woman well past youth, is sitting on her back porch, shelling peas.  Her name, as it happens, is Anna.

Hearing an animal panting, she looks up from the bowl in her lap just as a truck drives by in front, fast.  “Here, boy,” she says without even thinking, forgetting the noisy and multiple discouragements of middle age, and holds out her hand.  The black dog drops his head and wags his tail, and five minutes later he’s inside her kitchen eating a bowl of scraps.  She calls him Nero, for the obvious reason, and although she immediately notices the blue stone, it doesn’t surprise her or put her off particularly.  She thinks of it as a carbuncle, a tumor, nothing else, and feels sorry for him that his noble head is thus marked, so that he must carry a sign of life’s dangers and injustices on his scalp, making him a creature not quite innocent, but also, by virtue of this very injury to his nature, completely himself.

Nero, as she calls him, though before this a vagabond, settles down happily with her, and the upshot is that he lives out the rest of his life quite happily in her house — a matter of eating scraps every day in her kitchen, dozing by her warm hearth in the winter, and panting, eyes half-closed, in her back yard on hot summer days.  All this time he carries the blue carbuncle, which neither grows nor shrinks, on his head.  Anna treats him as friend and companion.  She tells him her dreams in the morning and counts the day’s events to him at night.  To her, his life is unblemished and comforting, and for his part he never strays.  When he finally dies, she digs him a grave under a tree in the back yard and puts a smooth white rock there, to remember him.

She herself dies some years later at an advanced age, leaving the house to a favorite niece, who moves in at once, overjoyed to leave her mother’s dominion and grateful for the soft greenness of her aunt’s lawn, for the pear tree, for the cool upstairs bedrooms where a breeze blows on even the hottest nights.  Being young and eager, she changes all the furniture around at once and paints everything a different color.  In due time, she marries.  She and her husband—for they are both hard workers and do everything with thoroughness and a hurrying hope—soon have three children and a house full of noise and laundry and enterprise in all its stages.

One day their youngest child, a dreamy boy named Nicanor, who is often left to himself because his older brothers consider him too young to be interesting and not quite pliable enough to be useful, is rolling a ball around in the back yard.  His eye catches a gleam of odd blue in the irises.  (Now the iris bed is a good way from the white stone, which still lies, after all these years, under the pear tree, but the earth can carry things along underground in its veins just as a river carries rocks.  No doubt you are familiar with how things without wings or feet sometimes travel).  Nicanor investigates, finds a smooth piece of something sky-colored sticking up out of the soil, and digs up the blue stone where it lies among the bulbous roots of the iris.  If there are any dog bones or skulls about, Nicanor doesn’t notice them.  The stone he has found is between the size of a chicken’s egg and a tennis ball.  Perhaps it has grown in the ground, since it was only the size of a frog’s eye or a golf ball, at most, when the black dog carried it from the garbage dump to Anna’s house.

Nicanor doesn’t show this treasure to his two brothers, because he’s learned that anything of value will migrate from his hand to theirs if he’s not careful.  Nor does he take it to his mother, because he doesn’t want to be told its name—he’s already named it in his mind—or what to do with it.    Nor to his father, because his father doesn’t have time and stares off into the evening sky with many plans written on his forehead, right above his frown.  The name Nicanor has given the stone is his own secret name, the one known only to him.  He puts the stone in a secret place, where no one else will find it.  In two years, he has forgotten both the name of the stone and where he has hidden it.

The stone’s hiding place is behind a loose board in a certain corner of his room.  It lies enclosed and unseen for seven years, while Nicanor forgets everything he knew up to the day he found the stone, and finds out other things.  When he is thirteen he jumps up to touch the ceiling in his bedroom, wrapped in the tall soft thought of touching his girlfriend’s breast, and bumps the wall just so. The rock falls out of the wall, kerplunk.  It bounces off his bed and comes to rest on the floor at his feet.

He thinks it is a piece of the planet plastic, or possibly, the moon.  He thinks it is a piece of a cat’s eye, something his auntie always told him could fall out of a certain midnight on to your head and change the course of your life.  He thinks it is a sign that he will be his country’s best soccer player and discover an island as yet uncharted in the southern seas.

He decides, after picking it up and examining it closely, that it is too beautiful to keep and so, the next night—that is, as soon as he can—he gives the stone to his girlfriend, to whom all beautiful things, in his estimation, are due, as are rewards to virtue, wine to wildness, rivers to the sea.   Not once since it rolled out of his wall has he remembered that the name he gave it before was his own.

The stone frightens his girlfriend, whose name is Ariane.  It does not look like turquoise, or sapphire, or actually anything at all she has seen before.  It sits on her night table and glows in the dark.  Or at least, whether or not it glows, she finds it hard, when the lights are out, not to look at the place it must occupy in space.  She believes she hears it talking to her after midnight.  She is afraid it has a secret name, or possibly a whole list of them.  Every night, when it looks at her, she can’t sleep.

Three days later, she goes to the seashore with Nicanor’s best friend.  She takes the blue stone along.  It is evening, and there are many stars, some of them floating on the dark breast of the sea.  Below them the surf grumbles and nibbles at the stones buttressing the headlands.  They lie down at the grassy edge of the cliff.  When they kiss, neither one of them knows who planned it or remembers daytime, exactly.  Ariane feels the blue stone, cold and reminding, against her leg.  She turns quickly, squirming out of the embrace, and throws the thing into the sea.  She doesn’t know whether she is more angry at Nicanor for giving her this blue stone which neither one of them can name and both would like to give away, or angry at herself for throwing his gift, glowing and too heavy, into the sea. After this she is not Nicanor’s girlfriend anymore.

Alternate #1 (Two)

Nicanor, of course, grows up.  (Time’s flow, though perhaps flexible in quantum physics, is irrevocably downstream here; this current carries Nicanor, as well as you and me, into the midst of it).  He does not quite forget Ariane, who threw away his heart, but the yearning in the memory no longer exactly belongs to her.  It has become a smoke inhabiting a certain patch of headlands, a leap upward into space, a tearing out of something that falls, heavy as a piece of midnight moon, on the foot that would have taken him to soccer glory, or to Mars.  What he does forget, and completely, is the blue stone.  He does not become a soccer player, or an explorer; he becomes a teacher in a school for children with special problems, and he derives much real pleasure from his work, which he does well.  He marries and has two children of his own, a boy and a girl, and along the way he teaches himself accounting and tax preparation in order to enhance his income, because money is always tight, and life expensive.

One day he stops at the market on the way home to buy a fish for supper.  At home, he’s reading the newspaper, his wife is cooking dinner and the kids are playing cave under the dining table, when his wife comes out of the kitchen carrying a blue stone the size of a goose egg.  “Look at this,” she says.  “Look what I found in the fish you bought.”

Their little girl runs up.  “Oh, oh, oh,” she says, “how beautiful, how beautiful!  Whose is it?”

“Well, now it’s ours, because the sea sent it here,” says his wife, holding her hand out, her palm cupped beautifully around the stone, so the child can see.  Nicanor, though he does not know why, finds this answer peculiarly satisfying, and sees quite clearly as she says it not only why he loves her but a small blue house situated by the sea with irises growing on the roof and a walkway of white stones, a place not quite like any place he ever lived but one he remembers, with utter certainty, as his own.

Alternate #1 different (Three)

One day years later a fisherman who is Nicanor’s poker buddy sees a disturbing sight at the seashore.  He could swear, he tells his poker mates, it was a dolphin with a crown.  Or maybe, christ almighty, it was a mermaid, the way they always used to say you’d see them, on certain clear days when the sea was greenish.  Not to say he believes in mermaids.  Likely it was dolphins they saw when they said mermaids.  Anyway, it was something, not some mirage or figment, he would swear on anything you pleased it was actually there, and he hadn’t been drinking either.  The crown had a big blue stone, and the dolphin, damn it, dancing and cavorting just like a refugee from some fairy tale—which by the way was not his favorite kind of literature—got up on its tail in the waves near the shore, and, with a leap no earthly dolphin had ever made in his sight before, threw the crown, or whatever it was, at the beach.  When he ran over he found a ring of shells and a blue stone in the sand.  At this point in the story he puts a real blue stone in the middle of the table, along with the chips and the coins that lie there, and Nicanor experiences a faint shock of recognition.  It seems familiar, that stone, though he can’t think where he has seen it before.

The stone lies there, and no one picks it up.

“I wonder what that’s called,” says someone, meaning, turquoise or lapis or agate or what.

“Stachis,” says Nicanor, and knows at the same time that he has forgotten something important.  The stone follows him home by means of his friend, who leaves it on his doorstep wrapped in a note, which says that since he knows the name of the thing, he should have it.  

Four

So the blue stone has been thrown into the sea by a boy’s sweetheart.  Let’s leave mermaids and dolphins on their tails out of it.  It’s a stone that travels best embedded in bone.

One day a black dog comes trotting out of the foam.  (Only you see it.  There’s no one at all on the beach.)  The dog’s fur is wet, and it’s panting as though it has swum a long way or been underwater.  Between its ears and embedded in its skull is a blue stone about as big as a goose egg.  Perhaps it has other names than the secret one, belonging to himself, which Nicanor gave it and then forgot, but if so, they are invisible and unheard, for they are written nowhere upon it.  It comes out of the water a stone in a dog’s head.

What is it that determines whether Nicanor will ever see it again?  You might say the story.  You might say the author.  You might say the habits and longings of the reader.  You might say chance, or order, various structural factors that rule the possibilities.

Whatever you say, the black dog is there now, where you are and where I am, trotting along the beach (it is a generic beach) with wet fur.  His fur smells in that doggy way.  He has already shaken himself, water spraying outward in shivers of splatter that look, briefly, like iridescent quills in the sun and leave, when they fall, little pocks of wetness on the sand.

The story simply trots along, going somewhere as yet invisible, carrying this blue stone in its head.  A traveling stone which so far has shed any name given it.

Nicanor is not on the beach.  He is in his study, dreamily staring out the window.  He is not thinking of beaches or dogs or stones.  If you could see his thought, it might look familiar to you, in color, say, or motion.  He is thinking, if he is thinking of anything, of his loneliness, which is a loneliness not made of solitude, for he has a family and a job and all the attendant connections and pre-occupations.  This feeling, a yearning, is one in which he feels curiously at home, though it bears no resemblance to happiness and is kin to—but not quite the same as—sorrow.

The story has dissolved into the no-thingness of thought.  Only the stone in the head of the dog is blue, blue as the sea on the kind of seaside day you desire, blue as the hands of dead men, blue as the thought of blue you carry in your forehead.

(5)

Blue.

Violent Story (Six)

A man with a knife is seen walking along the beach toward the dog.  He is perhaps the same man, older now, who first tried to wheedle the black dog toward his car when he saw him walk out of the trash heap.  Or perhaps his brother.  In any case he has intentions and a story of his own.

But when he sees the dog trotting toward him on the sand he sees the stone at once, though for just the first instant he thinks he is seeing a menacing black dog with a hole in its head through which a bit of blue sea shows.  Synonymous with the realization that it is a blue stone comes the intention to possess the stone and the idea that he will kill the dog to get it.

He drops the flame of his intention low to keep the signal of it from spooking the animal and walks more casually and slowly down the beach but still toward the dog, his face turned toward the sea.  As the dog trots closer, it drops its head and stops, as though sniffing at an invisible set of tracks.  The man is now within ten feet of the dog.  Suddenly he darts forward, his knife up; at precisely the same moment the dog rises from the sand like a black comet, snarling, and fastens its teeth in his throat.  The man stabs and stabs again.  He staggers.  There’s blood in the air and in his eyes, and he cannot hear the sea.  A terrible shaking occurs, and then he is aware of sand in his eyes.  A complete silence enters him.

The dog has killed him.  He lies in the sand, his mouth and eyes and throat open, the sky dead to him.  There is no one to see this, but you.  The dog is bleeding, too, from wounds in its side.  The surf pounds.  The knife lies in the sand.  The dog resumes its trot down the beach, bleeding, but it is not going to die today.

Is it the stone that killed the man, or the dog?  Or was it his intention, and the fear that made him see a dog with a hole in its head through which the sea was eyeing him?

In this version the comforting lady does not appear and we have forgotten Nicanor.  Our specie shape is bleeding through the hole in the dog’s head, which is a stone.

Seven

The dog turns east and leaves the beach, passing down a long deserted road running through willows and scrub toward a small town.  As he passes a scattering of farms, another dog - a shepherd - comes out of a field and follows him.  At the next farm, a mutt part Labrador, comes out into the road, barks twice, and joins the other two.  Goats and cows and sheep and other barnyard animals, fowl and pigs, stop chewing or scratching, and stand looking.  Cats observe, carefully motionless except for their tails.  By the time the black dog with blood on its coat and the blue stone in its skull hits the outskirts of town, there are eight dogs following him.  Soon there are more.

Dogs come out of backyards, down side streets.  They whine and whine, scratching at the back door, till someone lets them out to run through the yard and join what is at first a pack but quickly becomes a horde.  The street is now full of dogs trotting and panting, all going in the same direction, and people have noticed.  They turn and stare.  Owners of dogs take action.  They whistle and call: “Here, Toby!  Here Buster!” but the sound of these whistles and cries no longer seems to make ordinary sense and the dogs do not respond.  Animal control officers, the police and eventually even the fire department are called, and men in uniform mill around looking official and issuing orders, but these measures have no effect.  After a while there’s a growing commotion, a confused shouting and brandishing of weapons and implements, with occasional snarls and barks from the dogs.  But these are the town dogs, familiar, everyone’s pets and neighbors’ pets; no one wants to shoot or snare them—at the same time, there are too many, and it is too strange, for people to feel comfortable wading into the throng.  The dogs themselves do not look from side to side or run here and there sniffing, as dogs in packs often do.  They trot forward as though yesterday has disappeared from their territory.

Now the dogs have begun to look strange to the people watching, as though they have lost the terms of recognition, as though their own dogs have become a cloud of locusts or a nomadic tribe with strange head dresses.  Occasionally there are still plaintive or irritable calls from dog owners, of names no longer effective, but mostly people have gotten quiet and begun to stay clear of the margins of this exodus, recognizing, though without understanding it, the truth.  The dogs trot out of town, following the dog with the stone in his skull.  Perhaps he is the dog king.  Perhaps he has a paradisiacal smell.  Perhaps they have heard a sound invisible to human beings.

All of these dogs disappear for good.  The owners do not hear of them again. Nobody knows where they have gone.  Some people think it’s a plot.

They turn up next in Ariane’s dream.  Ariane has grown up to be a singer of some renown.  She lives in a desert place and has a fine, deep contralto voice with tragic over-tones.  She sings songs of discarded and difficult love, of midnight and empty streets, of dancing alone under moons thinking of you.  The place she lives and the quality of her voice have opposing effects on the number of her visitors—while one effectively keeps many away, the other ensures that a few, particularly lovesick young men, will persevere in their attempts to reach her home and test her reputation, which is mottled.  This opposition would probably lack any tension if she were not also beautiful, with long dark hair and a sultry and challenging air.  Some of the young men come and merely wait, standing outside her house, under a tree or by the well, hoping that she’ll come out to draw water, or sing.  But Ariane herself drinks principally wine, and only her cook, or sometimes the man sharing her bed, come out to the well, and never at night.  Other young men knock at the door, throw pebbles at windows, or write pleading or aggressive letters, with varying results.  All this is an irritation she cannot live without.

One night, then, she dreams of a tribe of dogs.  They are noble and speechless.  She herself is a deer; she feels this arrangement of things, as you might expect, dangerous.  The dog tribe mills about, paying little attention to her, but one of them sits and watches her, waiting, and she knows he is waiting for her to run.  He has a blue stone in his skull.  She feels an increasingly pressing desire to flee, though there is no good reason for it and good reason not to, with his eye upon her.  She resists the impulse as long as she can, but knows there will come an end to her power to hold back.

When she starts to run, the dog yawns and begins to lope after her.  Soon all the dogs are in chase, baying, and she is bounding away in great leaps, flying like a bird when she’s in the air, but bound to pant and glance back behind her in fear, a four-legged beast, when her hooves touch the earth.  She knows in the end she’ll be caught, so at last she turns and stands.

The dog king stops.  He walks up to her and drops his head so that the stone at the base of his skull shows.  He has offered his neck, so she cuts it with her razor-sharp hooves.  The stone, dislodged, rolls out on to the ground, and she takes it in her teeth.  She swallows it.  She is tired and lies down, waiting for the other dogs to kill her, but they merely circle her, panting, their teeth showing.  She waits.

When Ariane awakes, she doesn’t remember this dream.  Her current lover, an inveterate reader of newspapers, tells her at breakfast that a strange plague has been reported in India, dogs and newts falling out of the sky.  Ariane finds this difficult to believe but nonetheless feels disgruntled by his amusement with the story.  She tells him he wastes his time, reading that newspaper all the time, and doing nothing, really, with his life, while she does all the actual work and suffers to boot.  He says you could hardly call singing work, and soon the house is echoing with shouting, weeping, and the slamming of doors.   As usual, there is a disheveled young man hanging around by the back garden that evening; the cook, cursing the heat, the useless sheriff’s department, and lovers of music, drives him away.

Next, the dogs turn up in the western mountains, disguised as coyotes, or perhaps wolves, looking suspiciously mongrel and citified.  The farmers in the valley are disturbed by the loss of calves and lambs and get out their guns and set traps.  At night sometimes there’s howling that doesn’t have the singing, moon-inspired quality of wolf or coyote speech but instead that noisy bass thud of dogs barking at night.  But before anybody can shoot one or verify the various sightings the dogs disappear.  Two or three strays turn up in town, but that’s not so unusual.

7.5

One night Nicanor wakes up with something very heavy lying on his chest.  At first he thinks it’s his death.  But then, when his sight clears, he sees that it’s a big - - - - creature.  You and I know, a split second before he does, that it’s a dog; he thinks at first it’s a cloud of bad air combined with a dream or chili peppers, then god forbid an intruder, a thief or murderer about to kill him, then a dog.  A black dog.  While his actual and mental sight clears and he re-enters our story (his wife, who is asleep and remains asleep, stays in her own story) the dog, who is looking right into his eyes with his big black dog eyes, heaves himself up and jumps off the bed.  The bed bounces and jerks as he leaves it.  Nicanor is trying to catch his breath.   He does not wake his wife because 1) he believes he is dreaming  2) if he is not dreaming he doesn’t have time and must go straight on before it does become a dream through trying to explain it.

He sits up and puts his hand out in the dark bedroom.  The dog puts its head under his palm and Nicanor feels, as you might expect, a round smooth patch at the base of his skull.  He leans down and looks.  He sees a blue stone, which in the dimness has its own blue light.

A feeling of confusion and at the same time tremendous clarity, like a light exploding all the objects in the room into substance,  seizes him, and something exactly the size and weight of that stone turns over in his memory.  This moment holds its shape perfectly, like an unburst bubble, till it passes.  The next moment he hears the click of the animal’s claws on the floor, and the dog jumps out the window.  Nicanor rushes to the window; the last he sees of the dog is a dark shape galloping away in the moonlight without sound, already more like dream-shadow than a dog.  He touches the back of his own skull and though he has no sensation there, certainly not one of pain, he feels as though he has received a wound, or a bite.

The next night he goes to bed hoping, strangely, for a visit from this dog, though the experience was not one you could call pleasant and he is not particularly a fancier of dogs, black or otherwise.  He waits, unsleeping, while the night advances, and the house around him breathes in and out.  He waits, and does not sleep.  But he has no night visitors.   Except the moonlight, which crawls along the floor with its accustomed strange and relentless beauty, a beauty that makes Nicanor wish now, as he has before, that moonlight itself could be a creature.