by John Sibley Williams
I once skipped a stone all the way across the Pacific and killed a young boy in China. It was not a special stone, probably just one I pulled from where the sand met scrub grass, a simple gray piece like every the earth spits up. Half-submerged in a dune, it held nothing of fate in it. And the day itself I’ve already forgotten. I live by the sea and have skipped as many stones across it as the waves can handle. So it could have been nearly any day, any stone. I only know about the boy because a letter arrived a few days ago with no return address; the paper smelled of some place I’ve never been. It was from his parents. His name was Guo, which I’m told means “nation”.
Though I don’t read Chinese the content was made clear by the emotion behind it. Perhaps it was written in a language between theirs and mine, the shared tongue of chance. Ever since, I’ve kept this letter folded in my breast pocket while hurling stones into this ocean that no longer belongs to me. I iron out those tight paper creases and speak these words aloud while selecting my next stones. I have one in my hand now, ready to see how far it will echo.
Dear Mr. Williams,
My husband and I wanted to thank you for the gift you sent us from so very far, nearly halfway around the world! To know you were thinking of us, the Zheng’s, strangers, a poor family forcing an uncertain living from the sea, has brought us great joy.
As you may already know, the stone you cast (and again, thank you for it) struck our son Guo in the skull, just above the left eye, as he collected the nets cast earlier this morning, which by the way were empty again. We’re told he died immediately. Something of a blessing.
As you also may know, I am pregnant again, a girl, and have been debating these months what to do. Our nation allows only one child per family, and Guo, whom we loved like the sky after autumn rains, whom we prayed would thrive where we forever failed, well, he did not thrive. Our nets and stomachs are still hungry. This is a condition of our family name, always. A girl would mean wealth, if married well, and a change to our name and luck. What to do, we’ve asked ourselves, asked god. The sea answered. You answered. You have silenced this sleepless struggle toward and away from murdering young Guo. What would my hands have looked like after withdrawing them from his throat? I cannot imagine. How could I have caressed my daughter’s cheek?
Our impossible conundrum at an end, we can rest well in this almost certain future…because of you and your stone.
Thank you again, Mr. Williams, for cleansing our hands, for stealing this impossible decision from us.
Our eternal gratitude,
The Zheng Family
I am haunted by how things connect and disconnect, if we are all in fact made of the same stuff, and if so, does that imply an innate bond and mutual, reciprocal responsibility? Many of my poems and stories relate in one way or another to this question. I want to know if I am human enough for humankind, if my decisions and actions have consequence, or if the ripples from a skipped stone do not suggest an obligation to ensure those ripples are constructive and helpful to others.
In Stone, I approached this metaphor and its question in a somewhat absurd way in hopes it would resonate deeper. Whose fault is the death of the boy? Anyone’s? Does the fact that the family found a positive outlook from the horror and pain mean our hands are clean? Do they remain soiled regardless of how one perceives the outcome, the death? The story hasn’t answers. Not even a path toward answers. All it can do is hint at the larger questions of our shared human experience, if in fact it is shared, as I hope.
John Sibley Williams is the author of six chapbooks, winner of the HEART Poetry Award, and finalist for the Pushcart, Rumi, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. He has served as Acquisitions Manager of Ooligan Press and publicist for various presses and authors, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Book Publishing. A few previous publishing credits include: Inkwell, Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Evansville Review, RHINO, Rosebud, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.