He still remembers the days when he called loneliness peace.
Cherry-red pond side days, dull and flat like the stones he so often tossed at the water to smash the clouds below, petals spread like spilt blood on the banks. Pale cream dawn days, like the light that sat on the gliding swans’ wings, as they watched, serenely, the stones spin by. He used to play among the children, he should have been one of them. But no one ever taught him stone-tossing; he learnt the art by sight. So it perennially puzzled him, and always would, as to why his stones never skipped like theirs did.
Sometimes he dozed in the waterside warmth, smiling at passing peddlars and pretending they didn’t look away—and when parents whispered amongst themselves about why he wasn’t at school, he’d mistake their talk for greetings and wave.
He wasn’t extraordinary: a child without wings, a child of hair the colour of the light he’d never known. They had always held him in the contempt entailed by the extraordinariness they imagined upon him—on his brow, like a crown among his golden curls. Who was he, after all, besides a lazy snob’s child, grown fat off the land, one who by principle did not mingle with the lower folk? Wingless peacock, they said. Thornless rosebush.
They made a game of calling him names. He laughed with them when they played it, and sometimes laughed at himself with all their scorn.
Then among the crimson petals, he would toss another stone to the water, and the chorus of giggles behind him would be followed by the vanishing of faces.
He remembers how he held rings at five. Then he was eight, and learning to write a diary.
nothing at all happened today, nothing of worth.
I don’t know why the stones won’t skim.
He scrunched up his face for a better idea, for something else with which to adorn the page. Ultimately he decided to abandon the effort entirely, and slipped the book into the gap on the shelf—everything in place, nothing where it shouldn’t be. Diary-keeping was a practice meant to save memories, but to him it was but a chore imposed by his English tutor.
The evenings in the twelfth year of his life were as all evenings had ever been. He would watch each red dusk as the street walkers passed, blind to him, homeward-bound. He would wonder why Mother with her administration and Father with his ships were never home for him, never homeward-bound just like everyone else. Every day, he returned to an empty house, vast and hollow.
“And what is home?” sang his English tutor. “Home is where the heart is,” he said in reply.
His heart wasn’t there.
His heart was nowhere, actually, but he never told anyone. He had no one to tell.
A hundred servants waited on him, but to him he was the only one living there. Life was a ruled line, just like the paths of stones over the pond. He was singular and pristine, and he had no business trying to pry into their lives. He had no choice, not when his nurse told him constantly to be polite and mind his manners.
He kept his door locked most of the time. The lines weren’t supposed to bend.
I think I feel lonely.
So this evening it was that came upon rosy wings, landing on the eaves of the town to wash it red. Today, he didn’t feel like strolling too fast, because what was there to warrant haste? He kicked a rock off the path. There was dinner, and then there was homework, and then there was bedtime. There was nothing else.
He might have noticed the rush of footsteps from behind him if he hadn’t been thinking. It was only when she called that he realised that someone followed.
“Snob boy!” came a cry from far behind. He stumbled to a standstill.
Not a bit indignant at the nickname for reasons unknown even to himself, he glanced backwards—and the girl barrelled into him with a straw hat in her fingers.
“You again!” she exclaimed once her brilliant eyes had taken his. Briefly alarmed and slightly flustered, he took the sudden apparition in: auburn hair unruly and unwashed, face a little too dirty, clothes scrappy as urchin’s rags. There was the filthy stench of sweat all about her; he almost doubled back before remembering his manners. “You’re always here!” she went on, pretending ignorance to his shock. “Where’s your mother? Why’re you always here? Why aren’t you going home?”
“Because I don’t have one.”
“Yes, you do!” She would not be turned down, stubborn kid. She was pointing at the mansion a little far away, grinning boyishly. “It’s right there! I see you go there every day.”
He defended himself by folding his arms. “What do you know about me?” he answered—and she was right. He ought to go home before more freaks attacked him like this. So he did. She said goodbye, and he ignored her, and she didn’t try to chase.
I met a crazy girl today.
The stones still aren’t skimming.
He had spent countless afternoons before this stone-tossing—but today, only today, had he suddenly begun to realise that it was all taking him nowhere. He bit his lip. Before this, the activity had contented him enough—he had stubbornly convinced himself so. Why had it lost its charm?
Somewhere nearby, a five-year-old giggled and flung her own stone to the water. It hopped, skipped, and splashed deep into the blue pool on the third impact.
“It’s fine!” came her mother’s cry, as she began to lament the stone’s failed journey. “Throw a little harder next time!”
Suddenly he felt that sharp diamond of disappointment, right where he never had before. How long had he been throwing blindly and not succeeding? He glanced at the flat piece of rock in his own palm, and threw it—straighter and neater than the girl’s throw had been—perfect.
It splashed as usual, making not so much as a bounce before it vanished in a flash of water.
Before he could begin to pity himself, and as he pulled himself from the bank to begin homeward, a familiar voice burst in on his thoughts like a battering ram.
He turned—and grimaced. It was her again. Same scruffy hat on scruffy head. She was dashing down the grass to the bank where he stood, crying “hey you” with her arms flapping like an eagle’s wings.
“What is it?” he muttered when she finally stopped, gracelessly. She panted and grinned, the way she always did. He wrinkled his nose, the way he always did. Push her away, his heart said. She’s so dirty. Shove her away. “Why are you here?” came his question, as coldly as he could manage.
“Why are you here?” she parroted the question—and at this, he almost laughed. She sounds so much like me. Her eyes wouldn’t leave him, irritated as he tried to appear, and she pulled the hat off as her breath began to level. “Why are you here? Are you going to tell me that you don’t have a home again?”
“I…do live in a—house,” he finally confessed. “But it isn’t my home. Mother and Father gave me servants and toys, but really there’s nothing tying me to it. Not even Mother and Father. They’re never there.”
The girl pouted back. “Aw, you sound so lonely,” she sang. He tried not to flinch when she patted his shoulder in a crude gesture of comfort. The last pat became a firm clasp. “Is that why you’re here?”
“Don’t suppose! You should know.”
“—Yes. I have so many things, but I don’t have any friends.”
It was about then that he began to see, vaguely. He had never understood why he’d always felt empty despite the abundance in his house, the parents who were loaded with gold and assets (whatever those were), a surplus of things—banquets whenever he desired, a huge room with a gilded bed, thousands of jewelled toys.
There was no one there to share it all with, and that made it worthless.
The girl did not let his frown drag her wildness down. “What?” she exclaimed. “No friends? Then who am I?”
“Being a friend isn’t as simple as that!” he burst out. “My choice must be thought over; my parents need to approve; I can’t just be friends with some stranger I met on the streets…”
“Well, that’s why!” she answered triumphantly. Friend, her eyes shine. “You make it so hard! Almost no one would get past that. Come; we can make it easier, can’t we? I’ll be your friend. And you aren’t stopping me!” She laughed at the sky. “Good evening, friend!”
The sky turned orange as these words were spoken. The swans arced their necks to gaze at themselves. He had to go home, he told her.
She walked him halfway home that day, up till the bustling junction with the ice cream stand, where she said she had to be home too. He smiled at her in gratitude, and left her behind among the houses.
When he turned around, he realised that she hadn’t walked away.
Then he realised that she had no home either.
I met the girl again. As always. She says that being friends isn’t as hard as I think—so have I been thinking wrong all my life?
I haven’t learnt to skim stones yet. Is there any point in going on?
“Where’d you learn your English?” he asked, and she didn’t seem alarmed that he knew her secret. Perhaps nothing could alarm her any longer, not after so many years out in a city where no one looked twice unless to murder.
“Oh, I…I had friends who taught me,” she murmured, “but they’re all gone now.” His eyes grew wide. “No biggie, though. I’ve had lots of friends, they all last a year or so, then go on their ways.” A grin seizes her face. “People go where the money is!”
How old was she, twelve? Thirteen? She couldn’t be much younger than he. But she must have cut her toes on rocks before, cut them deep and bled brick red, when he hadn’t ever dared scratch his boots.
“That’s unfortunate,” he murmured, and was surprised to find this sorrow was real. Real as the smart of rocks cutting toes. “Isn’t it ever tiring?”
“Yeah, always is, some way or other.” She kept grinning though. As if she saw something on the horizon that didn’t exist to him. Something like home. “But it all passes pretty quickly, and I’m always finding new things to be happy for—like dumb rich snobs by the lake!”
He laughed suddenly at the spectacularly blunt insult. She was so happy, how could she be happy? Somehow, despite her bare, dirt-scraped feet and all the years written beneath her eyes, he had a feeling she knew more about home than he did.
When they parted ways that evening, she was reluctant, almost; her fingers hung onto her battered hat like talons, as if clinging to the sinking sun. “You’ve been my friend longer than any of the others,” she admitted then. “Um, thanks.”
“You are welcome.” He didn’t admit, that evening, that some part of this friendship was saving him. His fingers had already been dirtied by the rocks from the lakeside, so he didn’t mind when she decided to shake his hand in gratitude.
The rocks are as disobedient as always.
He sat throwing rocks for years to come. Two rocks for every day. The surface gleamed gold every afternoon, and its colours changed with the shifting seasons, each sky to be shattered, invariably, by his failures with the stones. Each piece smashed the water and descended like the last, and his throws began to grow frustrated. New year, midyear, deep in the winter when this town was only brushed by the tip of the cold.
He was growing tired of this game. Am I still innocent, he asked himself now, suddenly, clutching at the newly-picked stone in his palm. So many years; he was still throwing rocks—as before, as always—and they were still plummeting into the pond, as if afraid of his relief, his victory. Now, he knew that this game had always been a distraction; he had never really enjoyed it.
Now that he was past his childish mesmerism, he turned to see the grey world behind. He saw every countenance that passed, jaded to his silent pleading. He saw how their eyes averted him as if he were a street rat.
Am I still innocent? Will I continue to fool myself?
A voice pushed through the paper walls of his sadness, bored and bordering on flippant. He only had a few seconds to feel his heart leap, before she came to sit beside him on the bank and swing her legs over the water, lean from something he could only guess was undernourishment. Her smiled burned less now, but it was only because her body couldn’t afford her the strength for flame. Her frame was narrower, somewhat willowy, her back hunched to cold she’d suddenly begun to feel—but her hair was still a mess, and her eyes were still brown and furious when she grinned. Maybe, despite this, she was prettier. He had never noticed her becoming a little of someone else, someone the same but not quite, someone more resigned.
“Why aren’t you going home? Don’t say what you did back then. It is your home.”
“I told you, I don’t have one!”
“Yes, you do! Stop lying to yourself! It’s that house, right there!”
Her words made him angry. She was in no position to speak of such things! No position to make him feel guilty about not having the life he would never have!
“Don’t tell me about home!” he snapped straight back, much too furious for his liking. Home is where the heart is. “That isn’t my home, alright? Everything’s as it should be, and yet it’s all wrong. I don’t love my home! It’s just a shell, a cave. There’s no one there.” He turned away, stabbed suddenly by his own words. “What do you know about me and my life? What do you know?”
A silence. She didn’t look angry, but her stubbornness seemed to die a little.
“What do you know?” she answered at last, a sad echo, head bowing like a leaf on a withered stalk.
Guilt wrenched him in the gut. She sounds so much like me. Growling, he swung down to snatch a flat stone up, and stood. “I don’t understand this!” he cried. There was nothing more to be said—he was tired of running in circles and finding no end. He needed to make some headway somewhere, but what headway had he made? Eight years, and everything was still the same.
“I’ve been throwing straight all this time—straight as I can! Why isn’t it hopping like it should? Why is it still wrong?”
He flicked the pathetic little stone at the water, sending all his rage, all the years, with it. As always, as it always would—it splashed into the water and sank.
Perhaps because she couldn’t see the anger in his eyes, or because she found his failure comedic, she laughed. He turned, trying not to glare at her but glaring all the same.
“Well, that’s because you’ve been doing it wrong!” came her bewildering response, and her grin was suddenly as bold as ever. She took her own stone and stood. “You aren’t supposed to throw it straight, that way it crashes into the water instead of glancing off on it. You’re supposed to give it a spin.”
His eyes must have lit up.
She flicked the stone out of her hand, so casually it made all these years seem like nothing. It went curving from her fingers, spinning like a top in midair and meeting the water at an almost-parallel. The water rose to meet it—and off the surface glanced the stone, magically, hopping a second time, a third—on and on, till it leapt onto the other bank where it thudded into the grass.
“No,” he muttered. “That didn’t just…”
“You’ve been following your own made-up rules all your life,” she answered. “And by the way, your made-up rules are pretty silly. The same reason you didn’t have friends! Sometimes, you just need someone to tell you what the problem is. Why don’t you try yourself?”
Staring at her, waiting for a signal of approval that she quickly gave, he bent for a stone of his own. His fingers curled when he rose. With a toss that he had practiced all his life, it went soaring like a bird towards the water, but spinning. Spinning like the sun. And it leapt, once! twice!—before it splashed away, and by then his heart was bursting and his eyes stung with the tears of a decade and he wished his father had been there to see it skip.
With a silly, tearful grin, he whirled to see his friend, so changed from the day they’d met; she stared on back and laughed, “you’re crying!” because he’d never cried in front of her before. And he found it didn’t matter that she was seeing him so weak—didn’t matter if she never washed her clothes, or if her hair was a mess, while his was brushed out, his hands soaped to rawness. It didn’t matter if there were scars on her shins while there was not a thread loose on his pants.
Both glanced at the orange sun that gleamed across the water. He looked down at his hands, and seeing them brought some sort of rue. They were so clean.
She was smiling at him with bright eyes and some expectation, some special pleading maybe. He understood, because he felt the same hope brimming in him too—and a little reluctantly, he held out a hand.
He’d actually expected her to be a little gentler, a little more ladylike, but she only laughed at the odd look on his face, and snatched his hand so hard he thought he felt tears coming.
She walked him home again, and though he didn’t want to admit it, he did like the feeling of her hand safe in his. This touch held something he had never been given the chance to know. Perhaps Mother and Father had once cradled him in their arms, in those ancient days from which he could draw no memory—but the warmth was gone, and there were only shallow imprints of love remaining.
That warmth had, for these minutes, for these years, been replaced by hers.
The surly figure of the house appeared a little too soon, but he accepted it. He hesitated at the gates, nevertheless, for they looked so coldly forbidding and she was so real. Mother and Father were probably still at work, and the house was probably just as empty, as grandly meaningless as it had always been.
Letting go, the girl turned to face him, and her lopsided grin was more brilliant than the sun behind her. “Are you going home yet?”
He saw the way she smiled at the word home, as if she’d never lost hers. Then he realised that this didn’t matter either.
But his dining room was full that evening.
There were guests and servants gathered there amidst the family’s golden drapery, and a feast spread across the table for every man and woman in the house. There were streamers on the archway, homecoming banners by the doors.
And at the very head of the table, enthroned like deities afar, sat Mother and Father.
“It’s late!” exclaimed his father as he rose. “Get yourself cleaned and seated this instant!”
He wondered for five seconds whether it was a dream, because the lights seemed so bright. Then he decided he should smile whether or not it was, and he ran to do as told.
The banquet was preceded by a speech. “To a successful venture and the prosperity of the house,” announced Father to the chandeliers. As it turned out, the dinner celebrated a valuable new business deal he had clinched. Mother seemed equally enthralled by the news—not at the sight of their son, or at the dishes painstakingly prepared.
It doesn’t matter, he insisted with the gritty determination he’d learnt from the girl by the river—the girl who’d lived half her life on the streets, losing friends as fast as they came. He ate and savoured the honey warmth that filled him up. This was the closest he would ever come, he knew. It’s different today. They came home. The house is full. The house isn’t empty. It’s enough.
That night at the front door, he finally said “goodbye” to the father and mother who had barely heard his voice before. Father smiled. Mother kissed his forehead and returned the goodbye, told him to take care of himself, to listen to his English tutor.
“I want to tell you about everything that’s happened,” he answered, desperate for another second, as they began to turn. “I learnt to skim stones! I met this girl—”
"A girl,” murmured Mother, glancing at Father, who glanced back, too knowingly for his liking. He would have defended himself, but the retort was left hanging on his tongue. They had disappeared, and with the grandest of creaks the doors swung together, leaving the entrance hall as quiet as the dusk.
I finally learnt how to skim stones today—she taught me how. She also taught me to love what I have. It’s not easy. She taught me to love my home just that way, emptiness and all. She taught me to call it that. I don’t think she knows that she did.
Home isn’t made up of the people inside it at any one point in time. It’s the sum of events that have transpired within its walls, the events in its history. It’s made up of love that has been, the love that will be—love that stays to occupy the space within which it was born.
It doesn’t matter that Father and Mother weren’t here yesterday, or that they won’t be here tomorrow. They were here today, and that’s enough to make this place home, to me.
He remembers it all too well, because a thousand pages of his diary carry two-line entries about how he didn’t know how to skim stones. His diary ends with the entry written on the day his parents finally visited, because that was the day his English tutor finally decided, eight years from starting, that his writing skills had grown sufficient and quite admirable, and that the exercise was no longer necessary. He keeps the diary though. It pleases him to remember his own sadness.
He lost his interest in skimming stones quickly—strange that all the fun had vanished now that he knew how to do it. He was seventeen, after all, and the day was long overdue.
The children who teased him have left already, birds from the nest. Things change, have changed, will change. They have grown tired of their games. The fathers who taught them to throw stones stand now with bent backs and decrepit, reaching hands.
He never did leave the spot, though. For two years or so, he waited there for her among red petals. She always arrived with the same laughter and the same irreverence as before—but her dwindling state showed through her mask like light through linen, and he continued to wish he could help somehow—until he finally realised that he could.
It was two years of meeting and parting and dancing around the subject. He owed it to her; she had saved him first—but the words were still so hard. She dodged his questions so glibly it exasperated him. At last, one afternoon, in that pink-yet-blue evening light, he found the need to stop her and ask outright:
“Come and live with me.”
Suddenly, it seemed so obvious. She needed a home. He needed company. They could make it.
“Because I can’t let you suffer for who you are. Because I want my heart to be here. Because Mother and Father won’t come home, and the house will always be empty—”
He clenched a fist, eyes closing.
Life isn’t a straight line. It can change. It will change. They’ll earn enough one day. They’ll come home. We’ll live together. It will happen.
Then she gripped his wrist in affirmation, and for seconds, he forgot.