(Stories are the property of Kirsten Lincoln.

Please do not reprint without my permission)

Stone Woman of San Francisco

by K. Bird Lincoln

@

Untitled Document The stone women at the top of the pillars faced inwards, faces buried in their hands. Beth wondered why she had never noticed them before. Each woman was lovingly detailed in red limestone. Beth craned her neck, but from every angle the faces were invisible. This annoyed her greatly. What was the artist thinking, not showing the faces? What kind of stupid World Expo Committee approved a Palace of Fine Arts with a bunch of women's butts stuck all around it?

The doctorfs oh-so-compassionate voice from this morning intruded on her disdain. gThere are several options at this point. Many women opt for a partial mastectomy-"

" Okay Dr. Bell," Beth had said, "I understand. Thank you for your time." Beth remembered making it through the madrone door before the doctor could protest. The sunlight hurt her eyes outside the Divisadero street office.

Beth shook her head in denial, turning her attention to the present. The world was a stupid, stupid place. Her anger radiated out in thick waves.

A sudden chill made her skin crawl. The feeling was gone as quickly as it came. Beth looked up. Two Japanese tourists were staring at her. When she left the doctorfs office a few hours ago she wanted to lose herself in the anonymity of the tourists at the closeby Palace of Fine Arts. Now she couldnft bear the gaze of strangers.
Ananda's door stuck a little, as usual, when Beth pushed through the lunch crowd just inside. Her cinnamon soymilk latte was on the counter.

" Oh Beth, how did it go?" yelled Siranapudrala from the kitchen. Beth rushed past the counter. After dropping $1.10 into the coffee express glass, she high-tailed it out the door. She wasn't in the mood for her best friendfs southern cheer or her mystical pronouncements today. I just need some peace. She didnft manage to find a seat on the crowded East Bay train.

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Beth awoke suddenly, sweat making her red flannel sheets stick uncomfortably to her legs. A pain in her left breast made movement impossible. This is it, this is where I disappear, she told herself, a little relieved. When after two minutes the pain subsided, Beth got up for a glass of mineral water. As she drank, gazing out the window at the duck pond, Beth noticed the moonlight reflecting strangely on the water. She could make out a pale outline vaguely resembling a woman.

The shape brought her dream crashing down around her. She saw herself free-climbing up the side of the Palace of the Fine Arts by moonlight. On her pillar there was only one of the inside-facing women, obscured by fog from the bay. Her dream teeth chattered in the chill air, and she could feel muscles straining in her arches as her toes fought for purchase on the slippery rock.

" Are you okay?" came Siranapudrala's voice from below.

The dream Beth looked down on the tiny figure, Maybe I should go back down, she thought

--Peace.

The voice leaked from the stone, felt through her bones rather than heard.

--Peace.

In her dream, the words did not surprise her. The consonants rippled across her face and the vowels brushed her lips.

Beth reached with her right arm to grip a piece of ornament directly under the feet of the stone woman. Just a little more and I will see her face. The idea sent prickles of pleasure down her arms. Her fingers brushed the sash around the statue's waist, and for a moment Beth hung in the air, clinging to the woman in a damp embrace.

Beth came to herself with a start. Intense yearning held her body in thrall. Her heartbeat was so loud she couldn't believe her neighbors weren't complaining about the noise. It took her several more hours to go back to sleep, the aftertaste of the dream like gritty sand in her mouth.

Beth slept right through the 7:00 train; only managing to drag herself out of bed at 9:00. Leaning over the sink to brush her teeth, Beth felt the violent need to vomit. Anger flooded her throat when there was nothing left in her stomach. Beth wiped the gritty puke from the corners of her mouth and threw the tissue onto the floor. I can't do this. This is more than I can take.

In the Tuesday morning subway the unfairness of it all became too much. The thought of the pitying faces at work made bile rise to her throat. I can't do this, she repeated to herself. Beth looked up to see the silhouette of a woman coalesce in swirls on the windows of the train, then disappear into the early morning fog. The anger drained from her limbs, leaving her empty and heavy with grief. The languorous urge to lay down and rest, to never get up again, took over so slowly it was a moment before Beth realized she wasn't even breathing. The weight of comforting stone pressed on her from all sides, and two round, dark holes danced before Beth's blurring vision.

--Hunger.

It pulled fiercely at Beth, causing her throat to work convulsively with fear. A hiccough of air forcefully inhaled through her mouth brought a ghost memory of her dreamfs chill pain.

It was then that she turned around and went back to the haven of her futon. I'm just so tired, so tired. All I want is a little peace.

For a week the dreams continued. Every night she awoke, sweating in fear, confused to find herself in her futon instead of clinging precariously to limestone. Every night she tried to fall asleep again with the feeling of knees scraped raw by unforgiving stone.

On Tuesday evening, Beth woke up to see Siranapudrala bending over her in Anandafs-regulation gold-spangled sari. The smell of patchouli from her hair made Beth feel nauseous.

" You've got to stop having that dream, g said her friendfs Carolina accent.

Beth grunted at her. Siranapudrala was not perturbed.

Siranapudrala was hardly ever perturbed now, as if most of her attention was taken with a different plane of existence. Beth, who knew Sira back when she was "Vanessah and a fresh-faced Berkeley grad student, envied her that quality. Sira stared at Beth, challenging her to react.

In order to escape the overwhelming mix of patchouli and carrot juice, Beth decided to get a glass of water. She was followed into the cramped kitchen.

" Honey, whatever it is you're running from, it can't be all this bad. I haven't seen you at the restaurant for years, and there's nobody else in San Francisco I trust to belay me at the gym!"

As usual, Sira's gross overstatements tickled Beth's fancy. Then, she caught sight of her own curly head in the reflection of her kitchen window. Chemotherapy would make me look like a horse, I need my hair to soften my face, she thought.

" You are going to have to get over this thing you are hiding from, I can't be always holding your rope in the wee hours of the morning, darlin'."

Beth looked at her with wide eyes. "Uh, what did you say Sira?"

" I'm saying that you gotta go to the Palace of Fine Arts and face down whatever this thing is." Sira snapped her fingers in the air for emphasis.

" How did you know about my dream?" Beth asked. Sira usually evaded direct questions about her strange flashes of understanding. Beth only knew that Sira was tormented by violent mood swings until she took up with the guru who owned Ananda.

" How could I not know? Weren't you pullin' me into your little climbing adventure every night the last week?"

" I'm sorry, I didn't know I was bothering you." Irritation made Beth's voice harsh. gIt's not like I want to dream I'm climbing all over the top of San Francisco tourist attractions."

Sira sat down on the wobbly kitchen barstool, sending all her ankle bangles ringing against each other in agreement.

" Well honey, I guess you're right, those dreams aren't your choice. It's somethin' to do with those stone women, isn't it? At the Palace? "

Beth shook her head at Sira's mystical-medium talk. As if the stone women were anything other than limestone and a sculptor's fancy. If she went along with Sira's strange idea, maybe she could get rid of her faster.

" What should I do to make it stop?" Beth asked.

" You gotta go face those women."

gNo way, not gonna happen.h

Sira used California Rolls to lure her into her beat-up Honda an hour later. As soon as Beth got in, however, the locks closed and they were off-- not to Sapporo Sushi Boat as promised, but onto highway 880 and across the Bay Bridge.

" Just what do you think you're doing?" Beth said.

" Something's got a hold of you, and whether its good or bad I can't say. All I know is that neither of us are gonna get any kind of peace until you climb that pillar."

--Peace.

The soothing litany of single syllables dropped like pebbles into the clear pool of Beth's hopelessness. It was a typical September chill night, low-lying fluffs of cloud backlit by a sickle moon. Each trapped in their own thoughts, neither women spoke until the limestone walls of the Palace rose up to meet them in the car's headlights.


--Peace.
Beth opened the Honda's door and rushed to embrace the stone, all former protests forgotten. The promise of peace from the daily pain of confronting her own dying eyes in the mirror drew her irresistibly towards the pillars. Even before Sira dragged out their climbing equipment, Beth was testing the strength of some scrollwork along the bottom of the wall.

" I got this stuff out of our locker at the gym, I figured you'd need it." Sira was strangely edgy.

" You've got a better arm then I do, can you throw this over the overhang there?" Beth's voice sounded loud to her own ears. She wondered for a moment if the stone was listening. Sira cocked her head, squinting at something just over Beth's head.

" You know, maybe this isn't such a good idea, Beth. This feels bad.h Sira tested the air with her tongue, her little gold piercing glinting in the moonlight. gThere's something hungry around here pullin' at the edges."

Beth glared at her. "You dragged me all the way out here, and now you're telling me not to climb?"

Sira didnft look too happy, but she took the grappling hook from Beth and made the throw. The hook flew high up into the air, then fell smoothly down the other side of the pillar.

Beth fairly flew up the red stone. She found herself hugging the statue from behind just as in her dream, the damp stone cold against her bare forearms.

" Beth," called Sira from below, "this is all wrong. Come down and I promise we'll really go get sushi!"

--Peace, Beth.

A weekfs agony of waiting for the doctor's phone call about her polyp test overwhelmed her. If she had to spend her last few months of life just waiting for the inevitable, she would go crazy. There was to be no more waiting for her. If she could just see the stone woman's face, Beth knew somehow that terrible waiting would be over.

--Peace.

Yes, all she had to do was find the fold of the robe with her left foot, a little push, and she would be atop the pillar. Beth gathered her strength and pushed, propelling her chest to the pillarfs edge. She carefully swung her aching legs up, then found herself half-crouching, half-laying against a lip of red limestone.

--Peace. Come to me.

Beth ignored Sira's hysteria down below. She ignored everything except the need to see the stone woman's face. Hands trembling with chill and fatigue, she grasped the limestone and pulled herself up one last time.

The eyes of the woman's face were hollow, twin pools of emptiness reflecting the moon. Beth was pulled in. Frozen, she felt all her aches and pains pulled into the stone womanfs eyes. The past few days of bitterness and depression melted and faded away. She sighed in a steady stream, the breath leaving her body empty except for a heavy stillness. It no longer seemed worthwhile to bother her lungs for breath.

--Peace, Beth. Forever.

The voice vibrated along every inch of her skin, soothing, growing thick with stone patience and granite confidence. Yes, no more fighting. I am so tired. I deserve to rest.

Beth tried to call down to Sira, to tell her it was all right and she could go home. The effort of moving her lips was exhausting. A tiny spark of thought darted through her. Why can't I move?

--This is peace, Beth. Peace and silence.

The stone woman's eyes flashed in black glee once, cutting into her with the pent-up hunger of ages. Horrified, she saw her hands begin to turn a dark pink, the color of freshly cut limestone. Her sight was blurring.
I don't want this kind of peace. The panicked thought caused a flicker of warmth to flare up within Beth, chasing away some of the heavy chill for a moment.

--Fight it Beth, don't give in.

This time the voice didn't leak from the stone, but floated up on a warm wind, pungent with a familiar spice.

Sira?
Help me


Beth caught the faintest brush of her friendfs presence in the back of her mind. Sirafs smell flowed through her until it found Bethfs only defense against the stone womanfs hunger. The pain in her breast.

The sign of her fragile humanity, the cancer, burned in hot denial. She latched on to that pain, accepting the melanoma for the first time. Her bodyfs traitorous cells strove lustily for life, filling the emptiness growing in Bethfs eyes with denial of the stone womanfs seductive void. The carcinogenic flare gave her the strength to pull back.

Beth felt the stone woman's sudden anger as a chill lash on her shoulder blades.

--You are mine.

No. I deny you.

Heat from her breast spread slowly towards her hands. It was enough. Beth released her stiffening fingers from around the pillar, letting herself fall away from the pull of the terrible, empty eyes.

She landed on Siranapudrala and her layers of spangled cloth. Beth lay for a moment, feeling sensation return to her hands, surprised by her own relief that she wasn't dead.

" Uh, Beth, could you get off me, please?" said Sira, her voice muffled by Beth's sweat pants.

" Oh, sorry." Beth stood up.

Sira was rumpled, but also miraculously unhurt.

" I almost lost you, didn't I?"

Beth wondered if Sira meant just now on top of the Palace of Fine Arts, or the slow death by withdrawal she had attempted since Dr. Bell's office. I guess it doesn't make much difference.

Sira put a purple-manicured hand on her shoulder. Beth pulled her friend tightly into the circle of her arms. The smell of patchouli didn't make her ill this time. In fact, it smelled earthy and good, like the promise of life.

THE END

BACK TO the MOSSY GLEN