A tale of faith and dogma
There is this pebble. It is just a little larger than a bottle cap. Unremarkable in appearance. It looks like a thing one might pick up on the beach or the banks of a river. Shale grey, flat, shaped like a plectrum with the pick end smoothened to a more circular, disc-like shape, with a rivulet of white, possibly limestone running across the middle, making it look almost like a face with a stern, straight lip.
But this is no ordinary pebble. Because if a person touches it while uttering, or even thinking the correct word, the pebble transmits a powerful message to the person, and something phenomenal happens. This person will receive the gift of celestial sight and the ability to see the world as it is. They see the actual colour of a sunrise – violet, not gold, they can see the invisible scorpions and midges coming out of the navels, eyes or pores of their neighbours, smell jasmine, honeysuckle or taste sweet dew whenever they walk past people in the rapture of love, or lilies when they are near a person who is about to die. They can see the thoughts of every living thing around them, and whether it is a cloud of darkness or a cloud of light that hangs over each person. Such people are distinguished by liquid fire in the eyes. Their irises are bright yellow with a ring of fiery red just around the pupil. Their bodies emanate a great deal of heat and they cannot be comfortably touched. There is something different about them, and they are fearsome to behold. They came to be known by the world as luminosas.
Midway between a mountain and valley, there was a village called Callow. It was here that the pebble first came into mankind’s consciousness. A young, mute girl returned to her father’s hut one day with yellow eyes and hands that felt like bread fresh out of the oven. Her father, a simple widowed shepherd, was terrified. It crossed his mind to reach for the broom in the corner of the hut to chase the monstrosity that was once his daughter out of his abode, but before he could move, the girl stood in front of the broom, blocking his way. He thought maybe he could hit her on the head with the skillet. But the girl reached for the skillet first and shook her head. When the shepherd realised that his daughter knew what he was thinking, he decided he might try to make some money from this.
So he took her to town, set up a tent and placed a tray of sand and a wooden stick at her feet. He announced to anyone who passed by that his daughter had the gift of celestial sight, and for five cents she would prove this by drawing on the sand the very image or idea they held in their mind as they stood in front of her. The girl’s sand drawings were elaborate and accurate – as elaborate and accurate as sand drawings can be, and the person whose mind she had just read often preferred her more vivid rendition of his last thought better than the thought itself. Soon, her father had enough money to buy her some parchment and coloured ink, and for 15 cents, a customer could get his or her thoughts read and transcribed in colour onto the parchment, which they could then bring home with them. The girl’s paintings were special not only because they contained the most secret and private thoughts of a stranger, but because she added shades, impressions and details, which the customer had not seen in their mind, but which, upon inspecting in her paintings after, they understood truly existed. They realised when they looked upon her rendition of their thoughts, that the version she saw was the more genuine of the two. Not everyone liked what they saw of course. A few people were so angry after receiving their paintings that they threatened to hit the girl.
Now, the village chief soon heard about the girl and invited her to dinner at his house. He had learnt from her father that her gift was a result of touching a talking pebble. He prepared a fine spread of suckling pig, creamed corn, various puddings and berries. The girl did not eat for she saw maggots crawling out of the pudding, a newborn baby instead of roast pig on the silver plate, and a boar’s head sitting on the neck of the village chief.
Over dinner, the village chief gave the girl a piece of parchment and some ink and asked her to kindly show him where she found the pebble. She said she could not remember. He asked her to draw a picture of the pebble, so he could send his men up the mountain and down along the valley to search for it. She said she could not. He spent three hours coaxing her into telling him more about the pebble, for what ruler would not wish to own a stone which would reveal the true thoughts of all whom he commands? But the girl had no answer.
The chief then brought the girl down to a dungeon, where rats danced and embers burned. There she saw her father, tied up and brandished with hot coals. The village chief sat the girl down at a table and once again brought out the parchment and ink. “How does the pebble look like,” he asked as a guard pointed a lance at her father’s cheek. The young girl drew a picture of the pebble. The next morning, she threw herself into the village well and drowned.
The village chief sent his men out across the valleys and hills to search for a pebble that looked like the pebble the girl had drawn, but they could not find it. The chief took the picture created by the girl and stuck it up on an easel in the middle of the village square. He summoned all the villagers to the square and told them about the magical pebble and what it could do. He promised a reward of 10,000 acres of land to anyone who could find the pebble and bring it to him. The pebble was never found.
But the story of its supernatural properties came to be known by everyone in the village, and the villagers started telling themselves how lucky they were that such a thing chose to reveal itself in their little part of the world. They whispered among themselves that even though the pebble had not yet been found, the appearance of the luminosa must be a sign of great things to come. The chief decided that since the power of the pebble was first manifested by a citizen of Callow, it was only right that he should make a replica of the pebble to remind the people of their fortuitousness. For people who think they are lucky are easier to rule. So he found a similar sized pebble with a white vein and asked his best mason to file it down, so it took on the shape of the pebble in the girl’s drawing.
He built a marble pedestal in the middle of the village square. He placed the replica pebble on a silk crimson pillow, placed the pillow upon the abacus, and encased it in glass. With a stub of chalk, he drew a circle around the column of the pedestal to indicate to his people that this is a sacred pebble from which springs the good fortune of the community. He sealed the chalk to the ground with a coat of varnish.
The village chief died, but the pebble stayed upon its cushion, which rested on top of the pedestal, which was firmly lodged onto the ground in the middle of the village square. As time passed, people started to think that the pebble on the pedestal was the actual pebble touched by the luminosa who drowned in the well. Everyone remembered hearing a different version of the story from their grandparents and great grandparents and eventually they all simply decided that the pebble in their village square was the real pebble, and that was that.
A few hundred years later, a group of shamans took on the responsibility of governance and the upkeep of this pebble shrine. Each morning, they brought food and wine and left it around the edge of the circle that the late village chief had drawn long ago. Then they knelled down on the ground and mumbled a string of words, asking the pebble to put liquid fire into their eyes. This never happened, but the people saw the shamans bringing the offerings, then kneeling and babbling in front of the pebble, so they did so too. Soon there was so much food around the edge of the chalk circle that vermin started to live and breed there. The vermin grew to epidemic proportions. In order to exterminate them, the shamans decided to build a short clay wall around the chalk circle that the late village chief had drawn. This way, once all the food around the chalk circle had been consumed, the vermin would have no way out, as they would not be able to climb over the wall, and they would all eventually die. The village guards could then take their shovels and dispose of the putrefying carcasses.
A few years and many tales later, the story went like this: the vermin came to eat the food that the people had left for the pebble, and the pebble punished the vermin by conjuring a wall from the ground. The pebble’s power then proceeded to destroy the vermin in an instant. Once this tale became fact, people started to put a river pebble or stone in the corners of their kitchens as a talisman to ward off rats and cockroaches.
Many centuries later, some scribes came to the village. They saw the pebble with the chalk circle and clay wall around it, and they wrote epic novels, ballads and sonnets about it. They made up stories about where the pebble could have come from, whom might have made it, the luminosas who heard its message, what its message might be and what it meant, and the pebble’s purpose in the world. Different scribes made up different stories, each more fanciful and complex than the last, and these stories travelled across many lands, where they were retold with different characters and outcomes.
One winter, a band of architects and engineers found themselves stranded in the village. Because they were architects and engineers, they became restless and needed to build something. So they designed an elaborate structure over and around the pebble, as an extra layer of shelter to keep the sacred artifact safe. The old ritual of bringing food and wine and iterating petitions that the shamans started was still the custom, but because of the problem of vermin, at some point, the new village leaders had decided that food offerings should be replaced by offering of coin, jewellery or silverware. To accommodate this, the architects and engineers built a giant cavern in the ground of the elaborate structure, so people could come to the edge of the cavern and make their offerings, sometimes a generous pebble devotee might even drop a nubile teen or a little child as a gift to the pebble. Everything and everyone that was dropped into this sacrificial cavern was siphoned off into the homes of the leaders of Callow, who told the people that their contributions would serve are maintenance money if the pebble or the news house of the pebble ever needed to be restored or cleaned in the future.
By the time the structure was complete, the village was no longer a village, it had become a town. During this time, many scholars came to study the pebble and its associated rituals. The scholars came up with names for the pebble – Agni, Xin, Blethu, Snur, Lamtha, Kah and on and on.
More time passed and the town became a big, sprawling city full of barristers and judges. The stories about the pebble were getting out of hand – there were too many variations, and there were too many names for the pebble, and there were too many dazed children with broken arms and legs in the cavern in the house of the pebble. So the lawmakers sat together in closed rooms discussing how they could bring some order to the land. These were the basic tenants that were passed as law.
– The appearance of the pebble is unmalleable and cannot be disputed.
The story about the origins of the pebble, where it was first discovered and the specific nature of its powers cannot be disputed.
– The pebble shall be named Truth.
– On their fourth birthday, every child of Callow should be given a photograph of the pebble, so they can memorise how it looks like.
– On their sixth birthday, each child shall be told the exact same story about the origins of the pebble and its specific powers.
– Only children who are unable to memorise the image and narrative of the pebble can be thrown into the sacrificial cavern. They can be employed by the leaders of Callow in whatever way they choose.
– Every Tuesday and Thursday evenings, the people of Callow must gather in the square for two hours to share stories and sing songs about the wonders of the magical pebble.
– No one can touch the pebble. They can only look upon its glory, which they should do at three in the afternoon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
– All visitors to the city must also gather in the square on Tuesdays. They may not speak about the pebble, as their ignorance embarrasses and distracts us; but they should listen. -As a sign of respect to the people of Callow, visitors should also observe the practice of pebble veneration at three in the afternoon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
– Citizens of Callow are expected to always talk to the pebble. Out loud if possible to set a good example to fellow citizens. But if that is not possible, then citizens are at least expected to communicate privately, through thought transmission, to the pebble. We understand that the pebble has not spoken to anyone in a while, but all good citizens of – Callow should do their best to ramble on at the pebble nonetheless. They should do their best to always keep the image of the pebble in their mind and close to their hearts at all times.
– Citizens of Callow should bring up the pebble as a topic of conversation within their families and at their place of work at least 44 times a month.
– It is the civic duty of each citizen of Callow to tell everyone they meet about the pebble. Always talk about the pebble. If a citizen of Callow meets someone who does not know about the pebble, it is their duty to tell these people just how much they need the pebble and how the pebble must become a part of their lives if they are to be prosperous, fertile, joyous, victorious and free. Remind everyone how very lucky they are to have the pebble as part of their city’s history and legacy.
Because of the pebble, Callow soon grew into a metropolis and it was renamed Righteous. It prospered and grew as foreigners – who were as much enamored by the legend of the city’s pebble as they were by its law abiding, peaceful and industrious citizens, came to start their businesses here. The area surrounding the house of the pebble became the bustling heart of the city. Stages were set up in the square, where thespians reenacted the story of the young girl, her shepherd father and the village chief. Craftsmen set up stalls just outside the house of the pebble to sell necklaces with pendants shaped like the pebble – usually made out of pebbles, but sometimes plastic or wood, with a hole drilled into the top for a leather string. Merchants sold books, CDs and DVDs by pebble experts. There was a whole market of pebble experts – shamans and mystics who made it their mission in life to unravel the mystery of the pebble and get it to communicate with mankind once again; scientist and scholars who specialised in research to determine the likely composition of the pebble – limestone, perhaps quarts and granite. Igneous or metamorphic? And what makes it so different from other common pebbles.
People sat in tents outside the house of the pebble and held forums and workshops and discussion groups where they talked about how the existence of the pebble has had a most profound effect on their lives. Even the brothel-keepers got in on the action; they traded their cloak of ill-repute and took on the role of party-planner, organising extravagant orgies disguised as galas, parades and festivals that they announced as “celebrations of the power of the pebble”, “feast of the day of the arrival of the pebble” or fund raisers for the promotion of pebble awareness.
Some of the scribes, scholars and lawyers who lived in Righteous emigrated to other villages or towns in distant lands. They told the people in those places about the pebble, and soon a shrine, similar to the one in Righteous, but with a rock, or shell, or piece of broken glass, or the sole of an old sneaker in place of a pebble, showed up in almost every village in the world. The lawmakers in these villages and towns came up with their own laws with regard to proper conduct around their pebble substitute. In the town of Vigil, only those who eat certain fruits and not certain meats are allowed to even gaze upon the artifact chosen to sit upon their shrine. In the city of Bridle, all must wear suits of grey linen and cut their hair in a certain fashion before the weekly gathering – held on a Friday here, where Bridlettes sit for three and a half hours talking about the magnificence of their pebble substitute – a piece of scrap metal from an antiquated machine that was once used to manufacture toilet paper.
The newly appointed Mayor of Righteous heard news that such aberrations were taking place in these neighbouring villages and in towns. Some of these towns were located along the ridges of the mountains, some were deep in the valleys and some were far from Callow, across the seas, but the Mayor was fearful of the effect such heresy might have of his people. “Imposters, all of them!” he cried, and he dispatched his armies to kill their leaders, imprison their men, rape their women and destroy their pebble substitutes. “We are the owners of the one indubitable pebble named Truth. All the others are false, dangerous and undeserving of pillows and pedestals. As we smash their fake pebbles, we relieve them of their stupidity and lemming-like naivety. We will tell them the correct way to think; the correct way to live,” was his pre-war proclamation.
Villages that were too small to defend themselves against attack surrendered and under the behest of the Mayor of Righteous, created a replica pebble that was exactly the same in shape and appearance as the one in Righteous, these people would follow the laws of Righteous. They burned all the stories that their people had written, and adopted the story given to them by the city of Righteous, the story about the mute girl, the village chief and the shepherd father.
From time to time, people hear of a luminosa. But no one cares about the liquid fire or the violet sunsets anymore. All they want to do is look at and talk about the pebble and guess what its message might be. The people have so much to say. They have grown so accustomed to hearing the stories about the pebble and its purported powers that they no longer care about meeting a luminosa, much less hearing the pebble actually speak to them personally. They are content drawing images of the pebble based on previously drawn images that were drawn based on pictures created from an even earlier time. They are no longer interested in the actual pebble.
When a luminosa is seen, he or she is never seen for long. They almost always leave their hometown as soon as they’ve been sighted, and no one they knew before their transformation ever hears from them again. Most people do not believe me, but then again why should they, there are so many tall tales in our lands. Three moons ago, I met a luminosa. He told me that the pebble is never found when sought. It is the pebble that does the seeking and the finding, so occasionally a starving man rummaging through a barren field for a yam, or a freshly orphaned child looking for a parent amid the rubble of bomb-blasted concrete might pick it up. The scholars and scientists hypothesised that the luminosas were thinking of words, or feeling sentiments of love, compassion, forgiveness, peace, or joy when they had reached for the pebble. They were wrong. My luminosa friend told me that the word on the tip of his finger was “help”. Before his eyes turned yellow, the pebble said to him, “stay close, speak little, do nothing, belong nowhere, save no one, own no name.”
Copyright® Michele Koh Morollo, August 2015