The stone was slick to the touch. The old woman noticed it peeking out from the rubble of the scorched and ruined house. The smell of burnt wood and flint still filled the air, and Elizabeth knew that, beneath the ashes, hot embers could still scorch her if she was not careful.
This had been Elizabeth’s home for nearly as long as she could remember, and now it was gone—the collateral damage of a wildfire that had careened down the mountainside on April Fool’s Day. The fire had destroyed many acres of woodland, leaving marching rows of blackened tree trunks around the homestead.
Here Elizabeth had lived with her brothers, her mother, and her stepfather, until, many decades before, all of their lives had taken different paths. There had been the usual reasons for the languid exodus: one brother had married and moved away; another had left to pursue a career in writing; her mother and her stepfather had divorced. But Elizabeth had held this place close to her heart and, as the long years passed, as her hair turned grey, and her health worsened, she had remained here, bunkered down against an outside world she understood less and less. But this, her home, had always been peopled with her deepest dreams, her highest hopes, her maddest memories.
Over the decades, Elizabeth had collected around her all of her favorite books, poems, and paintings, and year after year, as her strength waned, she took shorter and shorter hikes up into the mountains behind the house, always hoping there to see something—anything—that would confirm to her that this place was indeed as special and as magical as she believed it to be. She went searching for signs in the wilderness, but found none, or if she did, they were ever so fleeting: a glowing figure among the ferns, seen out of the corner of her eye; a song drifting upon the wind in the treetops; the brush of some unseen person passing her by in the darkness.
Now, that was all gone. The house: vanished. Her books: ashes. Her mother, thankfully, was safe in a nursing home in town, so she would never have to face this loss, but Elizabeth did so on her behalf. The ache hit her suddenly, almost taking her breath away. She felt it as a shock to her chest, an emptiness where her soul ought to be….
Coughing, Elizabeth wearily looked at the stone she had picked up. It was an odd thing. She couldn’t imagine where it might have come from. Perhaps it had been secreted away in the deserted room of one her brothers, or maybe it was some shard of slag that had boiled up from the heat of the fire. But it belied the ruins around her: it was the most beautiful shade of deepest, aquamarine blue she thought she had ever seen.
“Blue,” Elizabeth muttered aloud, “Nothing on this earth is blue….” She took a deep breath, and the smoky air again seared her tired lungs. She took the stone into her hand and rubbed its surface. There was something about its smoothness that soothed her. It was irregular in shape, but it had no rough edges at all, almost as if it had been smoothed and polished on purpose.
As Elizabeth rubbed the stone and moved it from her right hand to her left and back again, something odd happened: the ashes of the ruined house around her swirled in sudden gusts of wind, and dust devils formed, tripping lightly across the smoldering foundation. The charred embers sparked and flew, and Elizabeth found herself at the center of a maelstrom of wind and ash, shadow and embers.
Then, before her eyes, Elizabeth saw a figure standing amid the swirling debris. She didn’t recognize the boy at first, but he reminded her of someone—who was it? Someone she had once seen when she herself had been very young, she thought. It was when her own father had died. He had been so young…so very young. She thought she remembered the boy standing beside her father’s coffin on the day he was buried. But it couldn’t possibly be the same boy…..
She coughed again, and the pain in her chest increased. She felt faint and dropped down upon her knees into the ashes. But she continued to grasp the blue stone tightly.
“Can you help me up?” she called to the figure. “I…I seem to be unable to get up….” The boy stepped toward her. She was sure she recognized him now. “Why, I know you!” she exclaimed.
“I’ve come to help you,” said the boy. “You’re not alone, you know. We couldn’t let that happen….”
“No?” Elizabeth said, “but now I’m the only one left! The house is gone; the family is gone. There’s nothing here; it’s all been burned away….”
“That’s not true!” said the boy. “You haven’t lost anything. We left the stone for you as a reminder. Take a look at it; everything you thought was lost—it’s all still there.”
Elizabeth took a painful gasp of air and looked again at the stone. Deep within its ultramarine depths, she thought she saw the house as she remembered it, with her brothers outside, and her mother, and even her father—her real father—although she knew he had never known this place.
She looked up from the stone and suddenly felt a deep sense of gratitude for all of the lovely things she had ever experienced here: the colours in autumn; the rising of the full moon over the lake; the pool parties with friends; riding her horse along the dirt roads; reading fairy tales in her bedroom while listening to the call of the owls in the wooded deeps. These memories flooded through her, and at the same time, the cruel scene of embers and ashes seemed to fade away. She thought she heard voices now, coming from some great distance: voices that she knew, welcoming her….calling her name….
Beside Elizabeth’s still form the little boy stood, and soon he was joined by others. They formed a host of radiant beings, their brightness rivaling the crisp noonday sun. The boy made the sign of the cross upon Elizabeth’s forehead. “Her love was great, Father,” he said, looking skyward, “Surely, that will count mightily in her favour….”