|Silent as Stone
By Corinna Underwood
Jose jerked the truck to a halt as Juanita flung herself from the porch. Her arms became frantic windmills, stirring the dusty air into
whirling vortices, her red dancing shoes stamped and scratched the ground. The sun slammed onto the windscreen making his wife’s
histrionics a shimmering mirage. Juanita’s voice rose over the sound of the dying engine in a tirade of fractured Spanish that scorched
his ears. Jose blew the dust from his wristwatch; he must be late for something. It might be Juanita’s card game, or their dancing class,
or perhaps dinner with the Garcias. He tried to remember what day it was and which event it matched. There was always somewhere
he was supposed to be. He could never come home and just sit in his house.
Juanita went through each day casting events out ahead of herself and reaching out to grasp them. This was how she hoisted herself
through life. It was as though after each day’s work on the farm, she must always tear herself from nature’s cycle and become mistress
of time itself. And so she would restrain or stretch the flow of every second; allocating and assigning activities and events. She put a
tremendous effort into dragging Jose along beside her. It was not that he tried deliberately to dig in his heels he just always seemed to
be in another dimension where his movements could never quite meet the beat of Juanita’s demands. She always berated his
deliberation, accusing him of creating too much friction, of staunching her onward flow. Over the years he had tried to keep up the
pace but he was footsore from stumbling after her.
Jose liked to savor each moment’s now without always having to determine what would come next. Sometimes even sitting still with
Juanita, at the card game or the Garcias’ dinner table was too much movement for him. He was unable to keep one eye on his watch
when he was in the fields or picking up supplies in town. He did not understand the way Juanita’s time moved in brittle lines that broke
so easily. Then they bled such fury that a small lapse would speed the fingers of time forward at a whirlwind pace, leaving nothing but
spilled emotion congealing in the hot sun.
Today Jose had loaded the dirt onto the pickup himself. Old Paulo had strained his back and been unable to do anything other than
drink warm beer and repeat ancient jokes. So the work had been twice as hard and the planting still had to be done. And now he was
expected to go and play cards, or dance when all he wanted to do was listen to the heavy fall of earth upon the ground and smell its
He sighed and lowered himself from the truck. Juanita made an ominous silhouette against the sun and he could not look at her
directly, which seemed to anger her more. He no longer heard the words that poured from her mouth, just their sound, like the throaty
rush of an impending volcano eruption. He squinted and strode over to the water pump. He could feel the ground's tremor as she
stamped behind him. While he washed the weary dust from his hands, arms and face he shot a glance at her shadow dancing its solo
tango on the arid ground.
When the first stone fell he thought she had flung it with the hardness of her wrath, but she would surely not have missed. The stone
had landed at the knees of her shadow where a moment later another one joined it. Then another. Each with a bone-dry thud almost
masked by Juanita’s incessant bemoaning. Shaking the water from his eyes, Jose straightened his back to the sun and looked slowly up
from the ring of pebbles to the red pucker of Juanita’s face. The bunching and slackening of her lips did not seem to correspond to
ear-wringing sound she emitted. Suddenly, each time her mouth closed, her eyes bulged and as she gasped to emit a new stream of
invective, a stone tumbled from her lips.
If Juanita noticed there was no sign. There seemed less and less chance of her stopping and the stones began to fall faster and faster
until they had piled almost to her knees. Jose steadied himself on the water pump and tried to remember if any of his grandmother’s
stories had ever told of anything like this. His eyes widened as Juanita began to gasp faster, to spill less words between stones. But the
stones rained. Was it his imagination or were they getting larger? By this time Juanita was clutching her neck as though to squeeze the
stones out, or perhaps hold them in. Jose could no longer bear the sight. Finding his feet he spun and ran over to the old barn, not
stopping until he was inside and Juanita’s gulping and cursing was no longer ringing in his ears. Slowly he sank to the floor, clinging to
the cool hush of the barn where the sight of Juanita spitting stones melted into silent shadow.
The shadows had blurred into blackness when Jose next opened his eyes. It was already too dark to see out of the cob-netted window.
With the caution of a dancer taking his first steps, Jose lifted the rusty latch and opened the barn door an ear’s width. The night was
filled only with the sounds of any usual summer night. He let go his breath, perhaps Juanita had gone to bed or perhaps she went alone
to dance or to play cards with their neighbors.
He entered his house like a stealthy burglar, creeping from shadow to shadow. He did not want to cast away the luxury of such silence
by calling out Juanita’s name so he checked each of their small rooms one by one. When her absence was confirmed, he returned on
light feet to the day room, lit a small lamp and sat in his armchair.
He folded his arms across his chest and leaning back, surveyed the silent room. One by one he picked out each item that had belonged
once to his father, once to his mother, once to his siblings when he had been growing up in this very house. His father’s pipe, his
mothers painting, a picture frame made by his eldest brother. Jose frowned, rose from his chair and went over to the sagging fireplace.
He picked up a nasty bud vase of Juanita’s, which obscured his parents wedding picture. The mantel was so cluttered he could find no
other place to rest Juanita’s vase. Tiring he scanned the other shelves, the low table, the dresser for a space. It was only then that he
noticed that every surface was crammed with bud vases, combs, conch shells, stones, corn figures, tiny baskets and other ‘special
keepsakes’ as Juanita called them. He looked at the bud vase, which was dwarfed, in his rough hands. Its porcelain was chipped; its
design of faded roses was peeling. A dark brown stain ringed the inside with an odor of dead vegetation. Jose let go of the vase, let it
fall into the empty stone fireplace, let it shatter the silence with a flat crack. He straightened his parent’s wedding picture then took
himself off to bed.
The morning found him breakfasting slowly in the kitchen. As he washed his dish he whistled. It was a beautiful day; he was ready to
unload the dirt. Still there was no sign of Juanita. He was counting all the times she had threatened to leave him, and whistling. Outside
the sun was already baking the earth. Jose pulled the brim of his hat down to cool his eyes and headed to the pump. Suddenly there
was no air to breathe. The bucket fell from his hands. Behind the pump lay a mound of stones; some of them small as pebbles, some
the size of a tightly clenched fist. Jose crept up with a sudden rush the mound slid and settled into a lower heap across the yard.
Jumping back, Jose narrowly avoided the landslide. He circled the pile of stones, scratching his head, then stopped. A tremor shook his
body despite the heat that beaded his brow. One larger stone had become separated from the mound and lay at his feet. It was easy to
see what had displaced the stone. Poking from beneath the stack of other stones that stood so silently now before him, was the red tip
of Juanita’s dancing shoe.
Slowly he bent forward, feeling the sun bite his back where his shirt rose. He picked up the errant stone and studied its smooth surface
for a moment. Then he placed it neatly with the others, covering the last trace of Juanita. Again, he pressed an ear to the stones, as
though he might hear her still, defaming him from beneath her mound. Only silence. Jose straightened and walked over to the truck.
The suspension sagged under the weight of the dirt; he had overloaded it yesterday, to save himself more trips than were absolutely
necessary. He could dump this load now and take an extra trip into town. to pick up some hives. He smiled to himself slowly. He had
always wanted the heady thrum of bees in the yard but Juanita had expressly forbidden it. Well now he would now he would have his
bees to feed on the honeysuckle and make him sweet honey. He climbed into the cab and coaxed the lazy engine into starting, then
backed up to the mound of stones. At the side of the house he already had bricks waiting to mark out the boundaries of the new
raised bed. The plan had been to lay it at the side of the house to give it the tomatoes afternoon’s protection of shade, but that didn’t
matter now. It wouldn’t be tomatoes.
Jose whistled as he placed the bricks. It didn't take long before he was shoveling the warm earth from the truck and the stones were all
but covered. Now he could plant more honeysuckle and maybe some clover or sunflowers just to look pretty. He smiled as he turned
the trucked towards town.
Jose told Old Paulo that Juanita had gone back to her mother in Peru, it didn’t take long for the toothless old man to spread the fire.
Then there were no more invitations to the Garcias, no card games, no dancing, only quiet evenings alone; just Jose, sitting his garden,
drinking beer and listening to his bees.
As the summer came into full bloom, Jose began to settle into a new routine. The knot of anxiety that usually tightened his insides
relaxed and his stomach overhung his belt a little. Each evening he would sit and watch the sun drip down below the horizon, the
unread paper open on his lap, mesmerized by his bees hummings and goings. For the first time since he had married Juanita, he felt
The summer air gradually thinned and shifted from a golden haze to burnt umber. Jose was enjoying the last of the light one evening,
in his chair as usual. But all was not as usual. Something was wrong with the bees. They seemed agitated, consumed; coming and going
from the hive as though they were angry. Jose frowned. Even their buzzing sounded different, as though they were trying to tell him
something. He listened hard, trying to decipher their bee language. They were frantic, gathering to swarm, some of them even charging
around his head.
Gone was the mellow lull of their usual dancing flight. Something was definitely wrong. The bees were furious, if he listened hard Jose
could almost make out words in the sound of their angry droning. Concerned for his gentle friends, Jose sat, straining to hear their
complaints. They circled him screaming, and suddenly, as though a veil of white noise was lifted, he heard their message, he heard it
quite clearly, though it was not a bee message, they were merely the unwitting medium of a familiar and gut-wrenching diatribe that
had ceased to haunt him earlier that summer. The sound was no longer a buzzing of a colony it was the unified screeching of Juanita,
cursing his laziness and battering him with abuse. Once more he saw her mouth opening and closing, fishlike, as she spat vitriol at him,
and once again he saw the stones, piling up about her, the stones beneath his garden where the bees had feasted all summer.
Jose stumbled from his chair and ran blindly into the barn. His heart pounding, he leaned against the door, as though the swarm might
force it in on him. When he had calmed, he gathered together his smoking canister, with unsteady hands, put on his protective hat and
gloves and stepped outside. Still he could hear her; somehow she had managed to reach him, to use the bees to taunt him. He sprayed
the smoke wildly at first then with more deliberation and the bees and the hive were eventually silent. With a grim determination he
removed what honey remained in the hive, then he took an axe to the hive and laid it to waste. As the bees slept he kindled a fire and
reduced the hive and its contents to smoldering ash. He bottled the honey without enjoying what was usually a pleasant routine. He
was eager to scrub himself clean and put the evening behind him. That night he sat in his bedroom sipping beer long after dark.
The next morning before Jose left for work he nailed a sign to the gatepost. It’s crooked letters invited buyers to make an
appointment. It was only two days before a young couple called to look at the house. They were suitably impressed with the size and
the condition and most of all, the price. Jose rubbed his hands together in the cool autumn morning as he took down the sign and
went indoors for his last breakfast in the old house.
He sipped his tea and opened a new jar of honey. He spread its liquid gold over of a thick wedge of bread and chewed on it slowly and
deliberately. He licked the traces of stickiness from his fingers, relishing the unique flavor. He finished up, washed his dishes and
packed them into one of the few boxes of his possessions. Suddenly she sound of his name startled him, he spun wildly, looking for its
source. He shook his head to clear such nonsense. The clock chimed, the new owners would arrive soon to sign the final papers and it
would be all over.
He slurped the remains of his tea. It came again, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere. The mocking cackle was
unmistakably Juanita. He ran from the kitchen but the voice followed him growing louder. He pushed his stubby fingers into his ears.
But instead of shutting out the horrendous noise, it only rang louder, inside of his head. Blindly he ran into the yard, his wife’s mocking
laughter ringing from his own ears. He zigzagged crazily to avoid the moving van that was pulling into the drive, screaming himself
now in an attempt to drown out Juanita’s mockery. He stumbled in to his chair, knocking it and himself to the ground. He dragged
himself to his feet, for a moment he remembered a young couple were waiting for him to give them the keys. He matched startled
faces to the memory, then Juanita’s voice screeched through his head.
He ran over to the raised flowerbed. Cold stone bit into his shin and he stumbled again. Spinning wildly, he saw, the couple watching
him in concern. Waving his arms frantically, he lurched forward wildly and began to dig into the dirt with his bare hands; Juanita
laughing hysterically in his head. The taste of sour honey made him gag. Suddenly his fingers found the molding form of a dancing
shoe faded to pink. He clutched it, at the same time trying to cup his hands over his ears. He ran towards the house waiving the shoe
in front of him. By now Juanita’s voice had reached fever pitch and Jose could no longer clearly see the fear on the faces in front of
him. He veered wildly and lost his footing. This time he sprawled headlong onto the dirt. He had no time to unclasp either his ears or
the shoe to and break his fall. His head made intimate contact with the water pump, cleaving his skull. At last Juanita was silenced all
was still. Jose’s blood slowly darkened the dancing shoe to its original red hue.