It was always a girl. And in each case study, she was between the ages of twelve and fifteen. Just as her body would begin the changes of womanhood, the girl would turn to stone.
It began in the extremities. A coarsening of the skin. A stiffness of the joints. And then it spread through the veins and capillaries. Over a period of weeks, the disease would take its course, and the young girl would end up a statue. A beautiful statue. Flesh, once rosy with beating blood, was hardened, cold and white, shot through with blue marbled veins. Eyes blind and unseeing, gazing into eternity. And somehow, when the process was complete, the statues would end up in poses that seemed to pantomime carefree, joyous acts. Running. Dancing. Laying belly down with feet curled in the air as though sunning herself in a flower field.
There had been five official cases in Japan, one in Australia, two in France, and seven in the United States. But the numbers were growing every day.
Every culture seemed to deal with the crisis differently. Some families kept the statues tucked into their girlhood beds as though nothing happened. Some erected them in favorite parks or town squares, with a plaque bearing her name and an inspiring quote. Some in Scandinavia put their girls on the prows of ships. In Japan, they were placed in a shrine, where people could come to visit and leave flowers; it was believed that if one kissed their stone feet it was a cure for heartache.
Parents of pubescent girls all over the world were terrified. They kept their daughters isolated, locked up, thinking it was something contagious. The media went into a frenzy, with special reports and maps and graphs and tabulations of the spread of the phenomenon.
Teenage boys tended to keep fearfully quiet about the whole thing. It was best undiscussed, because then it seemed less real.
But the young girls were breathlessly fascinated. They whispered about it among themselves. They formed groups and clubs to watch the twenty-four hour news cycle. The statue girls became tragic heroes to them. Like rock stars.
Some seemed to have developed a private joke; a girl would stop what she was saying mid-sentence, look into the eyes of another, then freeze into a statue pose, an unreadable smile upon her face.
Everyone was shocked when it happened to her. Daphne, the late bloomer who had never kissed a boy. Daphne, a small, wiry, frenetic girl of fifteen with gaunt intensity to her face that tended to make people uncomfortable.
She was the only child of psychologists. She spent her Saturday nights alone in her room on the top floor of their shambling Victorian at the end of a dead-end street.
When she was at school, she still had an aura of aloneness. She said either nothing, or blurted out something embarrassingly blunt and inappropriate. Her eyes were huge and unblinking behind round wire rim glasses. Her head seemed large on her tiny stick-like body. She wasn't harassed by the other children; her quiet strangeness caused them to simply leave her alone.
So of course no one could believe when, one day at band practice, she could not follow the notes on her clarinet. Her fingers could not move quickly enough. The pep rally tune blared on around her, but she didn't hear it; she lifted one hand to her face and stared at her own fingertips, hardened and stiffened, the swirled prints embossed ineffably in stone.
Compared to the chaos and the frenzy which followed—clarinet clattering to the floor, swarms of faces pressing in to look at her, the school nurse's shaking hands, the local news van waiting in the parking lot—the days in the hospital felt utterly still. Timeless and seasonless. The air was always dry and too cool, giving her a constant sniffle. And all that she could see from the fourth floor window was a patch of sky. It would shift from pale silver to blue to black of night, and then the moon appeared. When she slept, she dreamt the moon was a presence, a round, puff-feathered white winter bird, sitting on the windowsill and watching her.
She slept and slept. Or else stared into space, her mind feeling blank and stunned, unable to process what was happening. She could not concentrate on books. And she was not allowed to watch TV, for fear she would see upsetting news stories of girls like herself. Her parents came every afternoon to sit with her. When they spoke, they were carefully nonchalant about her condition. You'll be home before you know it. They are this close to a cure! But the strain of their forced optimism made Daphne feel incredibly anxious. She could hear the tightness in their voices, see their expressions when they thought she wasn't looking.
It was almost better when no one was there at all.
One afternoon when the hallway was quiet with a shift change, and the setting sun was burning bright and low, Daphne woke to find a youngish man sitting on the chair beside her, just watching. At first she thought she had hallucinated him out of boredom, he was so brightly intense against the sterile white background: his skin fair and tender, with flushed cheeks. His eyes were wide and startled looking, with a slightly fanatical look. The hair was fine, ashy blonde, and thinning at the top. The suit and dress shirt he wore looked old and too large in the shoulders.
"How are you feeling?" His voice was high and reedy.
"Fine." He had jolted her out of her stupor; his presence changed the quiet of the room so much. The air seemed to vibrate with electrical energy.
"Does it hurt you? The changing, I mean."
She thought. "Not particularly." She turned her left profile to him; her jaw was firm and chiseled, edged in a stone as fine and radiantly white as alabaster. " It's a little harder to move than it used to be. Like I have arthritis. But I have nowhere to go, anyway, so..."
The man looked at her with an expression full of... pity? Admiration? She couldn't tell. She wondered how she looked to him. She had been told by a girl at school that she appeared at once both old and young. Like a child prematurely aged and wizened. A monitor beeped quietly in the background, displaying her vital signs in squiggly lines on the screen.
He cleared his throat nervously and said, "I am the Blue Mountain Seventh Son. God has sent me here to help you. I have the gift of healing. I predict the future from the past. All good things will come to you."
"The Bible reads, 'Behold, I come like a thief in the night. And I stand at the door and knock...'"
"Speaking of doors, how did you get in here, anyway?"
He looked down at his feet. "It doesn't matter how I got here. It just matters that I am here now. I am a friend. I will heal you." He looked like a prototypical country boy. All he needed was a straw hat. She smiled to herself. At last, something interesting to break up her day.
From the hallway, the sound of an elevator opening. A rolling and clattering of something being pushed: the woman with the dinner trays. The man stood up quickly. He looked nervous. But there was also an awkward, lumbering joy to his face. He smiled a trembling smile as he hurried for the door and whispered, "I'll be back."
With the cases of stone girls increasing, there was spreading fear and confusion. Scientists claimed environmental toxins were to blame. Certain churches thought it was a sign of the apocalypse. Some politicians implied that it was an act of terrorism and that no one was safe anymore.
Along with fear, there was an increase in sentimentalism. There were "tributes" to the girl statues: sad ballads, fictionalized first person accounts written in the teen girl magazines, video montages watched widely on the Internet of these girls and the photographed moments of their short lives. The girls were all known by their first names only. Until there became too many of them.
"Daphne, we brought you some things. We have your assignments from class... we have some yarn and knitting needles, if you want to start learning again... we brought your books..."
Her father handed her a tote bag. "We brought Nancy Drew, we brought..."
"I don't read those anymore."
"Well, what do you read now?" So carefully casual. So afraid of excitation, emotion. It made her want to scream. But instead she looked at him for a long moment, and said,
"I like reading your books. You should have brought me some Philip Roth."
Her father smirked at her. "Oh, really? You think you're ready for that type of thing?"
"I'm fifteen. I'm not a child."
Her mother frowned. "What your father means is that the themes are a little mature for you. You can't read Philip Roth; you're a little young to understand it. You don't know what it is to be an adult. Most of his books are about grown men. They're... complicated."
"I like complicated." Daphne rooted around in the bag. "Did you bring the one thing I asked for?"
Her mother sighed. "I don't think that you really ought to have it."
"Oh, come on! It's all that I wanted!"
Her mother sighed. "Relax. I brought it anyway, against my better judgment." She pulled a mirror compact from her purse and handed it over. "What are you going to do with this, anyway?"
"Look at myself, duh."
"I think it would be unhealthy, laying here and staring at yourself all day. What you need is distraction. Concentrate on other things. Like your school friends. All of your friends have been calling to check on you."
Daphne's face grew red. "They are not my friends! They're just being nosy! They don't even talk to me in real life. Hang up on them!"
She looked at the wall and didn't say anything else. When the parents were finally gone, she took out the little mirror. She looked at her skin, fascinated by the way flesh blended into the spreading patches of stone. When she tapped the patches with her nail, it went click.
I don't have long, I don't have long. She spent the afternoon looking into the mirror, practicing facial expressions. Genuine happiness. Genuine concern. Genuine self-amusement. Genuine fear. She was going to practice until she could convince anyone of anything.
A group of teenage girls had begun holding vigil in front of the hospital. First it was a small group of three, but then it grew to five and then ten. Girls who dressed in black, with pale powdered faces and dark smudged eyes, as though in extravagant mourning. They held signs that said, "WE LOVE YOU, DAPHNE" and "PLEASE LOOK AT US!" When hospital security asked what they wanted, one of them explained, "We are Daphne's fans. We just want to see her. To touch her."
Every day they gathered, a mournfully hopeful little group. Every day they were sent away.
Daphne could hear the Seventh Son enter her room. Her eyes were closed, but she could tell it was him by his quiet, hesitant movements.
"Are you awake?"
"Yes. But if you don't mind, I'd prefer to keep my eyes closed. Are you back to heal me?"
"Yes, I am. May I begin?"
"I guess so."
"You can just... lay still. No need to open your eyes. You can even go back to sleep..."
"I'm not tired." She felt him draw near, heard his heavy breathing as though he were afraid. He had an interesting smell, a panicky scent of geraniums that seemed to seep hotly from his pores.
Trembling fingers began to stroke her cheek, her stony jaw line. At first she tensed up. But soon, she gave in and relaxed into his touches. It was something she wasn't used to.
Every day since her admission her body felt smaller, compacting in on itself as it calcified. Now, with her eyes closed, in this deep silence of soundless prayer and touch, she began to feel warm and expansive. Generous and alive.
"Have you healed a lot of people, or what?"
"I believe that I have."
Her relaxed mind began to drift. "My parents will kill me if they find out that you're here. They don't like it when I talk to men."
"Why is that?"
"I don't know. I had a friend once, who was a man. I went to visit him sometimes at his house. My parents freaked out big time over it." Tom. Their neighbor from up the block. He had started chatting with her while she was waiting for the school bus one morning, and he was walking his dog. He had doleful blue eyes, stubble on his chin.
It wasn't often that Daphne found someone she could talk to. Kids her own age were so difficult to understand. She preferred the company of mute animals.
Tom was different. He spoke to her in a direct way, as though she were an equal. About music, books. His ex-wife. She began to slip over to his house on stuffy summer evenings. He would play music, growling guitar music. She told him how she hated school and felt so different. And they were just talking.
When her parents found out, they forbade her to return. They said that it was wrong. That she didn't "understand boundaries." That she had no intuition to protect herself, as a mature woman would. How Daphne had slammed her door and howled, how she hated them.
Recalling those days while lying in this white room, in her hospital bed, she felt a great rush of nostalgia. As though she could see her little life clearly, for the first time, now that she was cut off from it. Tom's murmuring voice and the glow of his cigarette. The feeling of running home barefoot in the humid dark. The sweetness of her anguish. It all seemed so rich and strange and beautiful now. But she said nothing of this, and kept her eyes shut.
The Seventh Son was stroking her shoulder now. The shoulder had progressed faster than the rest of her; it was like pure polished quartz, translucent and glowing. And yet she could still feel the heat from his fingers, warming her. Maybe what her mother said was true. That she possessed no intuition. Maybe that's the thing that separated her from the other girls. They could smell it on her. It was like having no shadow, no reflection in the mirror. It was a call with no echo.
She bit her lip, forced back tears of confusion until she was calm. She arranged her face into an expression she had been practicing: playful seduction. She opened her eyes, the lids feeling more stiffened and heavy than yesterday, and tried to meet the gaze of the Seventh Son. But it was hard. His eyes shifted nervously, glinting like silver fish in a murky stream, struck by the sun.
"I... think I may be feeling better already." She raised herself up and stretched her arms, then flexed them back and forth. "I can tell a difference. Can you?"
He blushed, but finally forced himself to look into Daphne's smiling young face.
"I want to walk today."
"Where would you be going?"
"Around the hallways. I can do it. I feel fine."
The nurse sighed, then came over and unhooked the wires from the monitor. "You want me to get you a wheelchair? Just in case you need it?"
"I don't." She was a little lightheaded when she stood up. And her joints were resisting a little more this day. It made her young hips ache to move. But at least she was getting out of that room.
It was a pediatric ward. There were borders of teddy bears on the walls. There were glass cases containing children's drawings and clay creations. Inset in one wall was an aquarium of bright neon guppies. Daphne stopped to examine their movement.
"Don't tap on that glass, dear." The nurse had been following her three steps behind. Daphne walked away, annoyed at being spied on.
There was an arts and crafts room, full of low tables and tiny chairs. Some children sat painting with watercolors. They wore pale blue gowns like Daphne's and all had stints in their hands.
The nurse leaned to speak low into her ear. "There's one girl in there that has the same condition you do. She was just admitted yesterday. Maybe you could go in? Tell her hello?"
Indeed, there was a girl older than the rest. She looked about thirteen. She was tall, sitting hunched in a little chair, mindlessly painting flaming streaks of orange and yellow and red with one arm. The other arm was solid stone, and projected lightly from her body, her hand gesturing with gracefully spread fingers.
"Come on, it would do her good. I'm sure you two have a lot to talk about."
The girl felt herself being watched, and looked up. She and Daphne locked eyes for a long, shocked moment of recognition. There was no camaraderie, no welcome between them. Just wariness, guardedness as each considered the other, and the girl looked away first, coming to some sort of private conclusion. She painted a long, low streak of murky purple into her picture, with a grave, focused finality.
"Honey, your father and I have decided that we will try to get you moved."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, there are some hospitals doing research with stem cells." She handed Daphne some pages. "They think they can cure what you have. There are trials going on right now."
"Stem cells? Mother, don't get your hopes up."
"What do you mean? Why can't I get my hopes up?"
"What if this is something that science can't cure?"
"Oh, Daphne. The technology these days, it's just incredible what they can do."
"Did you ever think that this thing that is happening to all these girls, is, like, some kind of judgment?" She said this with a dreamy smile.
"What pray tell do you mean?"
"It's a punishment. By God. Or the universe. A judgment on the ills of society. And the young girls pay the price..."
"Did you read that rubbish?"
"No. I thought it up in my very own head!"
"You know what? Do me a favor and shut your mouth. I can't take it anymore. Do you know how crazy I am? Everyone's gone mad. People are scared and it keeps getting worse. They say it's the end of humanity. People are becoming desperate. And some of these parents are selling their stone daughters to the highest bidder! Little girls becoming status symbols in the private collections of sick perverts! You should be thankful that we're doing everything we can."
"Mom, calm down. I'm just saying that maybe you can't control everything. Because you don't understand it. Nobody does."
"You! You have this horrible disorder and you don't even comprehend..."
"Just leave me alone. I don't want to talk about this. There are no more words to say." She covered her head with her blanket.
A day and a night passed, but Daphne was oblivious. She either slept or stared into space, listening to the air vent that made a sound as lonely to her as a gust of wind on a distant planet.
In the morning, a girl came with a breakfast tray. She was one of the younger ones, merry looking with gaudy rings on her fingers and long, brightly painted nails.
"Did you hear?" she whispered before she left. "It was in the news. There was a girl like you, but in some country in Africa. One of the first ones. She had been completely mineralized. A statue. And they say she reversed! She turned back into a living girl! Her parents had set her up in a shrine in their hut. They were praying to her and all of a sudden..." the girl fluttered her fingers, turned her head from side to side. "It's just a report, so who knows. But that's great, huh?" The girl gave Daphne's hand a little squeeze, and then she was gone.
There were more stories being told of stone girls turning back to flesh. But no one could verify them, yet. They happened in remote, rural areas of the world. There was no testing. No documentation. It was all word of mouth. It could have been fraud or wishful thinking. But still, the stories were multiplying.
When he came back the next time, she was waiting for him. His posture was stooped, his eyes downcast, as though he were trying to render himself invisible. When he raised his eyes to her, there again was that tremulous, hopeful smile.
She got out of the bed, drawing herself up as tall as she could. She felt the life in her spreading hips. Her new young breasts.
She looked at the man that stood before her. He was different than other adults. He was pure and uncorrupted, a deserving soul. And what she felt in the confines of the small white room was power. The power to make this man happy. Or not. It made her feel bold and brave. She looked at him, considering.
At the same time, there was still that undercurrent of lonely wind from the air vents. A noise that was empty and relentless.
"I was thinking," she finally said. "Maybe this time we could go for a walk in the hall."
"I don't know. I mean... What if...?
I will tell them you are my uncle. There is no reason you can't be here. We are friends now. You are my official visitor."
They walked past the display case, the fish tank, the arts and crafts room. The Seventh Son's eyes darted back and forth. He seemed uncomfortable, but still kept one hand out, cupping Daphne's elbow protectively.
"So. You're really a seventh son?"
"Where did you come from again?"
"I came down from a mountain," he all but whispered.
He looked at her with his startled eyes. "To help you. It's my mission. I saw you on the television. They showed your yearbook photo on the screen. I saw your eyes. Your smile. I knew that you were special. I felt a connection. God compelled me to make my way to you."
This he said in his shy, stammering way. His cheeks burned as if they had been slapped. And she felt that he did see something in her that others couldn't. Some ineffable quality. It filled her with joy. The joy of being really seen. The joy of being, for once, known.
She gripped and squeezed his arm. "I'm tired of this floor! Let's go downstairs."
"Oh, I don't know."
"Here. We'll take the stairs. No one will bother us."
She found the exit sign and led him into the stairwell, the heavy door swinging shut behind them. It was cool, damp smelling and dark. "Hold on," she said, "I need to go back and get my socks."
But she was startled to find that the door wouldn't open. She pulled and pulled at the handle. She banged on the door and shouted. At last she threw her arms in the air and laughed. "Can you believe this? What the hell?" She turned to the Seventh Son.
He was standing, staring at her. Something about him seemed odd. Different. He didn't look shrinking or shy anymore. He was looking at her in a way that seemed greedy and bold. He gripped her stony shoulder with his fingers, and Daphne flinched away from him.
"I'm sorry. I can't get over it," he said. "Watching a girl turn, this way. It's just... an astonishing thing." He smiled, as though in a trance. As though he couldn't help himself, he ran a finger along her chin.
"Stop it!" She began to feel a prickling of fear. No one knew where they were. And though she thought she knew him, maybe she didn't. That lack of protective intuition, leaving her defenseless. Maybe he was one of those perverts who wanted to steal her, keep her statue in his closet, do sick things to her.
"You're not really who you said you were, are you?" she asked in a small, bright, brittle voice.
The man said nothing. But the smile left his face. He looked stricken.
She ran down to the next landing, so full of adrenalin that her joints did not ache as they usually did. There was nothing to slow her down. She tried another door, and this one, too, was locked. She banged it with her fist and yelled, "Help!"
The Seventh Son followed behind her. "I... am a seventh son," he said, sheepishly, "but if I have any powers they are unknown to me."
"Then why do you keep coming here? Do you get some kind of sick thrill out of seeing me like this?"
"I..." He couldn't seem to find his voice. He followed her down another flight of stairs. "I... used to be a man of God. I was a preacher. But I had no church. I preached on street corners. I roamed around. I had no home. I would sleep in an empty house, or a barn, or even in the woods. God's power was so strong. I needed nothing else but to spread His word. I trusted in the world, and it provided for me.
"Well, I got older. I started to get tired more easily. It was a hard life. People wouldn't listen to my sermons. I started to have my doubts, and it brought me down. I lost my drive. I started living in one of those motel rooms that they give to the homeless, and tried to figure what to do next.
"That's when I started watching a lot of television for the first time in my life. I needed the color and noise to keep me company. And it seemed like there was nothing on but stories of the stone girls. Over and over and over again. The pictures of the girls as babies and in kindergarten. Playing soccer, singing in choir. My mind began to just fill with these girls. Their eyes were following me everywhere. I saw them when I went to sleep at night."
"You should have stopped watching."
His voice began to rise higher, quavering and breaking. "But even if I stopped, there was an echo in my mind. An endless refrain. And it wasn't just the TV. It was in every magazine and newspaper. And the songs were all over the radio. " Now he tried the next door. It was locked. He pounded feebly. "The songs came from hidden speakers in parking lots! I couldn't escape. This kind of feeling was forced on me. Even though I never knew any of the girls. A false grief was forced on me. It brought me to my knees. I had to do something. I was obsessed."
"So you used me. You lied to me."
Now he had his hands pressed to either side of his head, and his face was clenched in an expression of despair. Then, all at once, his features seemed to fly apart, all cockeyed like the angles of a Picasso painting. She knew she was seeing down into his real self. She knew she was seeing naked desperation and loneliness. Like a curtain had been lifted and she'd caught a glimpse of something unintended for her. You don't know what it is to be an adult.
"It's true. I'm a sinner, I guess. When I saw your picture on the TV, I crawled to the screen and put my hands on it, thinking you could heal me." He came to her, his arms lifted beseechingly. "Could you, now? Heal me?" he whispered.
When he tried to lay a hand on her she pushed him away, hard, so that he stumbled backward.
She ran down the next flight and saw two doors. One was locked. One wasn't. This door led outside, onto a fire escape.
The bright light almost blinded her. The cold, hard metal rungs pressed painfully into her bare feet. The steps led down into a courtyard with a pretty little garden. She hadn't known it was there. It was right behind the hospital cafeteria. Behind tall glass windows, she could see all of the people eating their lunch. Doctors and custodians and tired-looking family members, sitting at the tables under a mural of the rain forest. No one noticed her.
Grass on her feet. Sun on her face. She had never appreciated such things before. But she was fifteen years old now. She felt strong. Pushing the man away had given her a surge of strength, and her anger was exhilarating. She felt that she could push back against it all. The burden of her parents' hopes and dreams. The whispers and prying eyes of her classmates. Lonely men spying on her through TV screens. Everyone who had looked at her young body and projected what they wanted onto it. They had all turned her to stone.
I will not resign myself, she thought. I refuse.
There was a tingling in her fingers. She held one hand up in front of her face. The flesh was living and pink. She took herself in, astonished. Every part of her was becoming soft and free.
The last she ever heard from the Seventh Son was his high, reedy voice sadly singing the first line of one of the most famous of the Stone Girl ballads. They say she had stars in her fingers, moonglow in her eyes... It was a eulogy carried away on the wind.
Daphne paid no heed. Her freedom was too intoxicating. The freedom of movement, freedom to feel. A blooming of sensation in her body that expanded like a universe. She looked around her in wonder at the garden she had found. Flaming red tulips stood tall in rows like soldiers. She knelt down and touched one, peering down into its center; a white pistil rose from a black-spotted base, dusted with pollen. It took her breath away to see it through reborn eyes.
Title graphic: "Stone Cold" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.