That night, I bring home buckets of rocks plucked from the shore and spread them across the driftwood table in our dining room.
“Earth bones,” I say, when Jo, my partner, asks what they are. “Secret keepers.”
I remember reading to her from a book about local history when we first moved to this part of the country, her head on my lap, my fingers entwined in her hair. I recited from the page that when people in the scattering of small villages and hamlets nearby had secrets that were too overwhelming to keep, they would whisper them to the rocks, safe in the knowledge that those silent grey listeners would guard their darkest passions, their secret shames.
“Let’s open them up,” I say, fidgeting like a child on Christmas morning. I imagine them as cockles, ready to be pried open, the delicious meat within quivering, soon to be devoured.
Jo rolls her eyes, tells me I’m wasting my time and that she’s going to bed. I wait for her to add that I should come too, a coda which always assured me any bed lacking the other was somehow incomplete. But she has already turned away.
I say I’ll be up in a bit and doggedly make my way to the tool shed to fetch a hammer and chisel while she, quietly sighing, climbs the stairs.
We both mumble I love yous, a habit that neither of us has yet dared to kick.
* * *
I hold one of the rocks in my hand, a giant ostrich egg of dappled black, lay it down, and with a swift motion drive in my chisel, gouging a wound from which words long kept silent might escape.
The rock blanches, scarred for life, but nothing emerges, not a peep, not a whisper.
I repeat the act with all the stones until they resemble a brood of hungry birds, yearning mouths upturned to me, craving a secret I’m not brave enough to speak.
I stare at them for a long time. After a while I concede that yes, it’s late, put down my tools, and retreat to bed.
* * *
I find Jo softly snoring, the ridges of her spine and shoulder blades tracing the gentle undulation of the Pennines where we used to walk, it seems, a very long time ago.
The us of then would have stayed up all night together, cracking open rocks to hear their secrets, she indulging me perhaps, but enjoying my folly, enjoying me. How long have we been broken beyond repair? How long has she known this truth but, like me, been unable to admit it.
I place my hand lightly on the contours of her bone-house, imagine the rocks within her, imagine their secrets, wonder how long they will remain silent.
* * *
A light sleeper, she wakes before me. There is a noise downstairs, something unearthly and yet rooted entirely in earth. The rocks in the dining room are shouting.
Together, we boulder down the stairs and through the door.
Voices like the grinding of millstones clamour to be heard; long-forgotten diction dancing from quartzite older than the dinosaurs.
—Moira Green’s got a third nipple. I seen it when she was changing and she begged me not to tell no one or else they’ll call her a witch.
—Captain Bright never died at sea. He ran off with the barmaid at the Hind. Poor Doris. It’s better she thinks he’s dead.
—My husband didn’t drink himself to death; I put arsenic in his coffee and that done him in. He deserved it, the devil!
—Lucy Beynon. Good God, I’m in love with Lucy Beynon and she’s marrying my brother. What do I do? What do I do?
The old secrets flow, finally free of their silica cages. Jo looks at me, eyes shining, like she used to when we were adventurous and new, and together we listen to the secrets the rocks spill, laughing at some, gasping at others, wondering if the names we hear are still alive or long dead, now bones of the earth themselves.
When the rocks finally quiet, murmuring their last words like the tide retreating over shale, we sit together at the table, eyes lingering, quietly pondering if we too can be as open as the rocks, tell each other how we really feel, what we really want to say.
She yawns. “I’m going back to bed. It’s late. You should come too.”
“I’ll be up in a bit,” I say.
She stands, pushing her chair backwards, and the sound of it scraping on the floor as she rises is like a chisel hitting the rock inside me.
My hand shoots to hers, halting her retreat.
I open my mouth and speak.