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art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

The First Stone

Wren Wallis is a writer of fantasy and speculative fiction whose mother is disappointed she writes under a pseudonym. Her work has previously appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She lives in eastern Massachusetts and is uncomfortable talking about herself in the third person.

"Here," says Nina, "hold this," and she puts it in my hand. That's how I come to be holding the stone when the world ends.
It's hard to tell at first what's happening. We've been standing on the beach in the bleak afternoon light, gray shore and gray sea, sand and spray whipped into a fine stinging mist by the December wind. We were beachcombing. Well, Nina was beachcombing. She said we ought to have a walk, for old times' sake, after the meeting with the lawyers but before the whole thing was done.
I thought the meeting with the lawyers meant that the whole thing was done, but I went along anyway. For old times' sake. For Nina. She meant it as a gesture of peace, probably. That was Nina.
There isn't really anything left to say to each other so we don't say it, just walk along with our heads down in the wind. I keep my hands in my pockets; Nina keeps stopping to pick up a shell or a piece of foggy beach glass or a colored stone. She has a knack for spotting the pretty things half-buried among the sea-litter. But then she turns to me and says, "Here, hold this," and I put out my hand and she places in my palm a stone the size and shape of a robin's egg, a warm shade of terracotta, freckled with black and white.
It doesn't feel like anything special. It feels like a stone, maybe a little warm from her hand. And then the world ends.
The wind stops. It doesn't die down or change, it just isn't there anymore. The air goes still and cold and dry; it has the sudden dusty, unbreathed quality of an old cellar. Sound stops, too, not just the sound of the wind but the endless onrush of the waves. The waves have stopped. The sea is glass, still and smooth and dark. Everything is motionless, like someone's just flipped a switch.
"Nina?" I say, my mouth dry. It's the first thing I've said since we started our walk. "Nina, what the hell?" My voice is an unnaturally loud crack in the silence.
Nina doesn't answer. She's motionless too, frozen half-stooped and reaching for something in the sand, a mannequin of herself. She has her tongue between her teeth, the tip of it showing at the corner of her mouth, the face she always makes when she's concentrating. What she was concentrating on, what she was reaching for in the detritus at her feet, I can't tell. The black cloud of her hair is tied back beneath a kerchief, and the wind had flung the tails of it wildly from the nape of her neck. They're still flung out, on a wind that no longer exists, suspended by invisible wires.
The sky is blank as new paper. Out at the horizon, out on the edges, the sea begins to crumble away, as if it were itself sand. I can see it breaking into fragments, into smaller fragments and then infinitesimally smaller ones and vanishing, falling away soundlessly into the white void. Where it falls, nothing is left but the void, blank space washing in like the tide. "Nina?" I say again, and my voice has a crack in it now, too.
Someone else is on the beach with us. I didn't see where he came from, but he wasn't there and now he is, standing a little way from us. He's ordinary-looking, a man you'd never pick out of a crowd. He looks tired, maybe a little gray around the edges. He keeps his hands in his pockets.
"So you've got it now," he says. "It's your turn."
"What is?" I say. "Got what? What's going on?"
He nods toward the incoming tide of nothing. "World's ending. This one, anyway. I did my best, but they never tell you how hard it is. Anyhow I'm done with it. Punching out."
I stare at him. I'm still holding the stone, Nina's stone, and it's a warm, dense weight in my hand. It's like holding the last piece of reality.
"It is," he says.
"The last piece of reality." He indicates the stone with his chin. "Or the first, depending on your view."
I almost drop the stone in the sand. "How did you--what? I thought that. You couldn't hear me."
"Sorry." He shrugs affably. "Bit of a rude party trick at this point, I guess. Of course I could hear you. I made you."
It takes a minute to collect myself. The grains of glassy sand that were sea moments before continue to wash soundlessly into nothing. The void eats into the world. Everything is going to blank page around us. "You're God," I say.
He bows a little ironically, without taking his hands from his pockets. "It's more of a pseudonym, you understand. Or--an inherited title, I suppose? Anyway, the latest, yes. But I'm done with it now. Thought I had some pretty good ideas this go-round, some improvements on the last, but the big mistakes catch up to you and it really sort of went to pieces there at the end."
I look out at the horizon, very literally going to pieces. His laughter behind me is dry. "I didn't mean that. But now that too, I suppose. This one's done."
"And this is what happens? When the world ends? It just--erases?"
He nods again and shifts his weight in the sand. "And then the next one starts. From scratch. Whatever you like. It's hard not to go a little wild at first--one vast continent! Giant lizards! Volcanoes and meteors!--but that's part of the fun. Then you'll settle into it, of course. You get attached." He shakes his head wearily. "That's when it gets hard, is when you're attached."
He looks exhausted, worn thin as paper, and for a moment I feel a pang of sympathy. It passes. I look at the stone in my hand. "And this is--?"
"It. The heart of it. The start of it. It's the first stone, the egg of the world. You've got that and you just build the rest from there. Easy as thought. Of course, thought's never quite as easy as we pretend, is it? You never know where the ends of it will get you."
"And if I just put it down again?"
He flinches. "Too late now. Please don't. I've been waiting ages for someone to come along--I mean literal ages. Finders keepers, tag you're it, all of that. It's the rules."
The stone is growing unnaturally heavy. "The rules you made up," I said. "You just made up rules and now I have to abide by them?"
He smiles sadly. "That's how it works, yes. God, and all. You know."
I consider the stone, warm and weighty as a living thing in my palm. It feels like the only living thing. The world around us dwindles into nothing, into absence; all that remains now is this stretch of sand, me, Nina, God. Color seems to be leaching gradually. Nina's kerchief has taken on a grayish cast. God is fading into translucence.
"So I can just--I'm God now?"
He shakes his head. "Not yet. Now is the part of the story where all is void, formless void." He looks around us at the emptiness. His voice seems to be echoing from a little distance now, as though he's talking to me from within an unseen tunnel. "And then there is God. God stirs in the void, etcetera. That's you. Once you start with the making."
I know the stories he means, Nina had shelves of them, myths and folktales. They'd never much interested me. Nina would know what came next, what to do with a void. Nina made color wherever she went, she'd fill this blank space with darkness and light, set stars spinning out of nothing, make a joyful noise.
And so I know what to do. It isn't my stone to begin with; Nina picked it up, she's the one who put it in my hand. I cross to where she's standing stooped toward the sand, hand outstretched, tongue between her teeth, and I press the stone into the palm of her hand.
"What are you doing?" God asks behind me.
"You'll have to stick around a couple minutes more, I'm afraid," I tell him. "Just to give her the gist of it. I promise she's a quicker study than me, though." Her hand is warm against mine, against the stone. And then I commit my one and only act of creation.
I let go.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Author Comments

This story began as its first two lines, which occurred to me on a walk one morning. I came home, wrote them down, and forgot about them for six months. Then I found them again, and a story seems to have germinated in the interim.

- Wren Wallis
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