The year after I moved to Z, my neighbor across the street got into some very bad trouble with a stone. Come to think of it, it hadn't even been a whole year, because I moved to Z in the very first days of summer and the stone appeared in the early spring after that. So it had almost been a year, but not quite. Nevertheless, Z was already a home to me in all the ways that mattered. It felt like home because of the good people there who bought my cakes and my muffins and my blueberry pies, and because of good men like my neighbor Cliff Ellison who came to talk to me every day at the bakery.
I had come to Z from a place where the stones almost never appeared anymore and where only the very oldest still remembered the last time it had happened. I had listened to their stories many times. All through childhood and growing up, I listened to them talk about the stones, and about the terrible year when in a single day, within a single hour even, three massive stones appeared before the houses of very important members of the community. It was one of the stories all of us had known, and it remains in my memory to this day in a perfect state. I could pull it out of a hat even now and still know all that happened. But when the stone arrived across the street from me in Z, I was still as unprepared for it as though I had never heard the first thing about it.
The sight stopped me in my tracks. It was the early morning and no one else had woken. The town was without sound. And yet the stone was already there, and Mr. Ellison was standing before it, utterly transfixed. They looked like a still life painting, the both of them, the stone and Mr. Ellison, as though locked in some silent battle that was taking place in a different world than this. There was dew on the grass of Mr. Ellison's small lawn and on the pavement, but there was no dew on the stone. The stone was bare, with a dull glint. It had the look of something brand-new, of something freshly made. The image that came to me at once was of a loaf of bread, the way a loaf of bread looked after I had just pulled it from the oven. That was the way the stone looked to me, too, as though someone had very recently pulled it from some great oven. [End Page 244]
It must have arrived just now, I thought. I must have just missed it.
The moment seemed to last very long. I began to feel then like an unwelcome intruder on the scene, like I was witnessing something that perhaps I shouldn't be witnessing at all, something very personal. Later that day, when I visited Mr. Ellison, I found him in very good spirits again, but at the moment of his discovery of the stone, his face was the saddest I had ever seen. He looked as though he had walked not into the crisp early morning air but into an ash heap. He was as gray and unmoving as the stone. For the longest time, I couldn't place the look on his face, couldn't tell what was contained in it. They stood as though one was sizing up the other, the stone ten feet high and unblinking, and Mr. Ellison with the ash in his face and as though turned to stone himself.
It occurred to me only much later what the look on Mr. Ellison's face was that I had seen on that morning, but then it came to me very clearly; that was when I realized that Mr. Ellison looked like a man who had only then, perhaps for the very first time, gotten to the bottom of what it truly meant to be a mortal man.
Unlike me, the town of Z had seen its share of the stones, but it had been several...