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art by Billy Sagulo

Why Women Turn To Stone

Heather Morris is a librarian living in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. She blogs at thebastardtitle.wordpress.com. Her work has previously appeared in Every Day Fiction and Bards and Sages Quarterly.

Tom tried to show interest in Miss Collingsworth's flower arranging as she blithered on about some dance in the next county, but he kept finding himself distracted by the statue under the arbor. Bent in a posture of world-weary resignation, the subject did not appear regal or refined; she was dressed in dowdy fashions of the last decade rather than of the classical era. Her face, broad and homely, was ill-cut, but the stone eyes seemed to stare Tom down clear across the garden. He'd heard brilliant things about his new neighbors, the Collingsworths, but if this was a mark of their taste, he wasn't sure he wanted to deepen the acquaintance.
"Mmmhmm," he muttered in Miss Collingsworth's direction, when it seemed there was an appropriate gap in the conversation. "Yes. Of course."
Eventually, she noticed his distraction. She tossed her pruning shears down roughly, shattering him from the dazed reverie. Caught, Tom tore his gaze hastily back to her, only to find her eyes sparking with mirth.
"What is it?" he asked, peeved.
"You were bespelled by the ugly statue, weren't you, Mr. Haversham?"
Her yellow curls and bow lips gave off the air of angelic innocence, but Tom sensed something sharp under that smile, and felt a new interest in the young woman. "A bit," he admitted. "It's strangely captivating."
"I must admit, I hardly notice her anymore. When Albert and I were children, of course, we clambered all over her like red Indians in the daytime and told bogey-stories about her at night. But I promise, if you put her out of your mind she'll stop bothering you soon enough."
"I don't understand. You speak as if she's a real person."
"Why, of course she's a real person, Mr. Haversham. That's Aunt Hephestia."
"Aunt Hephestia?"
"Of course!" Miss Collingsworth said gaily, as if having a stone aunt were the most natural thing in the world.
For the first time in many years, Tom found himself at a loss for words. "But," he stuttered. "But. She's stone."
"Yes. Terribly grim statuary, but I'm afraid we can't be rid of her. Legal clauses, you know."
Forgetting all manners, Tom crossed over to the arbor to study the statue more closely. Soft soapstone had already begun to weather from the elements. Aunt Hephestia's mouth slashed a grim line across her tragic face, her fingers curled into half-fists at her sides. "Is this a common occurrence?" he asked.
"Do you mean to say you didn't have a Stone Aunt?" Miss Collingsworth sounded nothing if not amused.
Tom shrugged noncommittally. His family had been small, consisting principally of a disinterested father, a prim grandmother, and a large-bosomed nurse with yellow teeth. Over the years he'd traveled far and toured a broad swathe of society, but he'd never seen such an ornament anywhere he'd been.
"How queer. Still, I suppose it is a rather Northern custom, and coming from so far away, of course you are shocked. It's nothing, I assure you. She had no one to love her, and so she turned to stone."
The harsh words brought his attention back to the young woman. "That is cruel," he said.
She moved her shoulders delicately, half a shrug. "That is the way of the world. Come in for tea, Mr. Haversham. Mother will be wondering about us if I keep you to myself much longer."
Becoming acquainted with his new neighbors took up most of Tom's time that long summer. There were dinner parties and hunting parties, balls where eligible girls half his age were thrust into his arms, tours of county churches and picnics on the moor. His father had raised him to thrive in polite society, and thrive he did, but still he sometimes chafed under the weight of it all.
He failed to discover any more Stone Aunts, and that was what he really wanted to see. Perhaps other families were better at keeping their unwanted relatives concealed. Perhaps the Collingsworths were unduly proud of their atrocious art. Perhaps Miss Collingsworth, seeing a gullible fool, had been playing with him.
That last seemed least likely, he reflected on one of the rare nights he dined alone. He'd made something of a hobby of looking into the matter as his curiosity got the better of him, and both Bartlett and Brocklehurst made oblique references to what they called Stone Spinsters of the North. Miss Collingsworth was clever, but she was also seventeen, and Tom could hardly picture her leafing through her father's dusty reference tomes for a mere prank.
There were other concerns that would better take up his time, but Tom could not get the image of the stone woman out of his mind. He could not decide if she had been sad or angry. Was it true that no one had loved her? In his experience, love was not a prerequisite for marriage. He was not even sure it existed at all, outside of poetry and seventeen year old girls' fancies. Why would any woman, even an unloved one, turn to stone?
The subject began to so obsess him that when next he found himself at Somerset House, he decided to address his questions directly.
He found himself partnered with Mrs. Collingsworth for the pre-dinner ramble, there being too many young men in the party and not enough ladies. Normally, he would have borne her company with mute forbearance, but this evening he was glad not to need an excuse to seek her out.
"Is it your sister under the arbor?" he asked, when the pleasantries were through.
Caught off guard, she stumbled a bit. "Oh, Hephestia? Yes. Have you been admiring her, Mr. Haversham?"
This last was asked with a teasing glint that mirrored her daughter's, diminished though her beauty now was. Tom smiled.
"I must admit I find the whole custom very odd. How does it happen?"
"I couldn't say as to the mechanics of it, sir. That's for doctors and scientists."
"But in general? Was it gradual, or did it happen overnight?"
"There were early signs of it, I suppose. She came to live with Mr. Collingsworth and me after our father died. Already she was old and getting rigid. No one would marry her, you know."
"Yes, I have heard it is usually old maids who suffer such fates."
"Suffer? Oh no, Mr. Haversham, she does not suffer. Isn't it better to be inanimate than face the trials of idle gossip? Besides, it allowed her to watch over the children without being any trouble to anyone, which was so useful."
Tom thought it curiously unfeeling that Mrs. Collingsworth could keep her own sister as a garden ornament and only grudgingly refer to her as useful.
"How long has she been a statue? Will she be that way forever?"
"My but you do ask a lot of questions, sir."
"Forgive me. I know it is indecorous, but my curiosity has been piqued."
Mrs. Collingsworth counted off the years on her fingers. "Fifteen, I think," she said, finally. "Yes, fifteen years. The old sow is younger than me now, who would ever have thought of that? She was twenty eight when she went into the stone."
Tom struggled to hide his shock. Twenty-eight! Why, he would be past thirty come winter. It was different for women, of course, but it had not occurred to him to wonder why. How could one decide to give up on life simply because they were old and unmarried?
They had circuited the long walk of the property, trailing behind the rest of the party, and when Tom looked around he realized they were once again in the garden. Mrs. Collingsworth had stopped, and was appraising the grey statue with a carefully blank expression.
"It was all for the best, of course," she said. "Hephestia was always unfortunate in her looks, and it made her prickly with men. She did not trust them, you know. She didn't try very hard, and so of course no one offered her even the barest affections. It was best to get out of the way before she degenerated completely. She tended to run to fat, you see."
This last was said without any apparent irony, despite the fact that Mrs. Collingsworth could perhaps be best described with the word rotund. She took up Tom's arm once more and they turned toward the house.
"That's not why women turn to stone," a voice said behind them. Tom straightened, little hairs rising on his arms. The vowels sounded like gravel being ground underfoot.
He looked to the lady on his arm. She appeared to have heard nothing at all.
Was it madness, then, that compelled him?
His mother had been confined to a sanatorium when Tom was sixteen months old. She suffered nervous disorders, suicide attempts, a splintering of the mind that his father decried as a rotting weakness of the blood that she had willfully deceived him about.
Tom did not remember her face. There hadn't been so much as a sketch of her in the house of his childhood. And yet, he fancied he could remember the shape of her hands, weighted and rough as rock.
It was obviously the height of bad manners to steal into his neighbors' garden with a chisel in the dead of night. Tom did not care. She had called to him, the woman trapped in the statue. And it was trapped, he felt sure. No matter what Mrs. Collingsworth or her daughter had to say about it.
The lantern he had brought with him cast bands of shadow around the base of the stone woman. He stared at her--the pitted cheeks, the sharp collar, the thick arms. "If you are alive in there," he began, voice shaking. He swallowed a steadying breath, tried again. "If you want me to help you get out, tell me how."
The voice he had heard from her did not return. There was no indication that he was doing anything other than speaking madly to a piece of stone. But then he chanced to look down at her hands. He was sure they had hung at her sides before, but now the index finger of the right hand pointed at the statue's center, toward the navel.
Tom placed his chisel on the spot. Without allowing himself the time to second guess, he struck one brief blow.
A crack split the statue immediately. It ran up her middle, and ever so slightly, the woman moved. Dust and chips of stone fell away from her like shedding scales. Gradually, the skin beneath began to turn from gray to the palest pink.
Tom vaguely heard a commotion behind him, saw lights kindling in the house. He did not dare turn away. He set the chisel again to places where the stone clung stubbornly; her shoulder, her hip. She poked her way through, a chick escaping splintered eggshell.
She was not as ugly as the sculpture had made her out to be. Not a great beauty, to be sure, but a perfectly natural looking woman. Her clothes smelled musty, like a damp room invaded by mice. Her hair, heavy with grit, hung lank and grey around her shoulders. But she smiled, and it suited her well.
She shook her right arm, raised it to wipe the dust from her eyes. It was too dim to see what color they were. Not that such things mattered, outside of novels.
"Thank you, sir," she said, her voice a cracked and dry wheeze. "I owe you a great debt."
Tom held up his hand and, after a perceptible hesitation, she rested her cold, dry fingers in his. He helped her stiffly descend from the pedestal she stood on, dust swirling around her in eddies that caused them both to cough.
She drew back her hand, clutched at her gown self-consciously.
"Why do women turn to stone?" Tom asked.
"You said to me, that's not why women turn to stone."
Her eyes dilated in astonishment "You heard me?"
"I've been shouting at my sister and her dim-witted husband and children for years. No one's ever heard me before."
Tom quirked his head. "It's possible I am mad."
She laughed, heavy barking that turned into another cough. He steadied her, and she shrank back from his touch only a small bit. When the fit ended, she shook more fragments of stone away. "Women--people--turn to stone when they are afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"Of being alive. What else?"
It was not the easy answer he had been hoping for, but it was the sort of answer he had been expecting. He wondered if he had the power to break all the Stone Aunts across the land out of their confinement, show them that life wasn't as frightening as all that. Faced with an endless schedule of dinners and dances and meetings with solicitors, it seemed like quite a welcome change.
A servant ran toward them before he could propose his idea, raising a ruckus. Hephestia wiped down her moldering skirts with businesslike efficiency. "You'd best run, before they catch you here and string you up. I'll claim it was only my own strength that broke me out of the stone, if you don't object."
"Of course," he said. "I reside at Redhill Manor. Come to call when you are settled."
Her eyebrows narrowed to a point. "Whatever for?"
"Say that I am calling in your debt."
She grabbed up the lantern and thrust it toward him. "I'm not going to marry you, if that's what you think, Mr.--?"
"Haversham," he said with a chuckle. "And no, that is not at all what I propose."
"Go, Mr. Haversham," she insisted. "I promise I will call."
Needing no further assurance, Tom shuffled his lantern and chisel in his arms and hurried off into the night. Along the way he brushed a shard of stone away from the curl of his ear, never noticing that it was not a piece of the woman's, but rather what was left of his own.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 13th, 2013

Author Comments

I was working on a different statue story that wasn't coming together, and also wanted to play around with narrative voices outside of my comfort zone. One too many Jane Austen movies later, and this story came together pretty painlessly. For the record, that first story still hasn't quite worked out, but I think I've gotten living statues out of my system--for now.

- Heather Morris
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