Last of his Kind
Deep in the endless forest wandered the last of the stone guardians.
Boulder moved slowly between the great trees and ferns and jungle detritus, searching. He stepped with care -- eyes alert for any small creatures who might be harmed by his passing.
He did not know how long he had been searching -- only that it was many, many seasons. All that time ago, he had set out to find the other stone guardians -- ancient beings like himself charged with stewardship of the endless forest. Now, he was not sure if there were any left.
When he reached out with his mind, looking for his kin, he found only the fast thoughts of birds and the smooth ones of snakes, the clever thoughts of spiders and the gentle dreams of trees. No other stone guardians. No one like him.
As Boulder wandered, the forest changed. It grew older and taller and more full of secrets and life.
There began to be other voices: small green quick-walkers, thin and thoughtful magic weavers, clever felines, and great antlered warriors. They all served the forest in their own ways. Boulder watched from a distance as these new beings grew and became stronger and built strongholds.
Yet Boulder remained alone -- still listening for voices that he did not hear.
Reto bounded through the trees, hurrying hurrying, to get home with an overstuffed knapsack of fruit. He’d been out in the jungle and done his foraging -- or some of it -- and then he got distracted by this pretty bird he’d seen high in the trees, and then he lost the knapsack somewhere on the jungle floor, and then he’d had to chase off a few monkeys and finish foraging, and on and on.
Now he was late!
Silly Reto, silly…
The little goblin wasn’t looking where he was going -- he knew this path like the back of his own hand! -- and so he didn’t see Boulder at all. He ran into the back of the stone guardian’s leg, and bounced off the sturdy limb -- tumbling to the ground and scattering bananas and mangos and all sorts of things across the path.
Reto sat back, mouth agape, looking up at the towering stone giant -- who turned slowly to see who had run into him.
They stared at one another.
Reto didn’t know what to do at all -- and then he realized that he’d lost a lot of his haul. Up he leapt and scrambled around in the underbrush, gathering all the fallen fruit and muttering about how foolish he was the whole time.
Boulder watched, listening to the buzz of thoughts and the foolish rambling.
His face cracked with a smile. Boulder leaned back, and laughed -- moss shaking from his face as he did so.
When Boulder laughed Reto froze. He’d never heard anything so loud and startling. Reto stared at Boulder, wondering if this big stone man was going to eat him. Finally, he realized the giant was laughing. He chuckled too -- realizing how strange he must have looked.
“Whereareyougoingtostoneman?” asked Reto, speaking so fast that Boulder had trouble following the words. Boulder shrugged his shoulders, stone cracking as he did so -- he couldn’t understand Reto.
“Youcomehomewithmetorinji!” said Reto, as though he’d had a great idea. Boulder was still not sure what the creature meant -- but the little green quickwalker stood up and pointed dramatically in the direction he was going.
Boulder understood that.
With the little green man skipping and bouncing in circles around Boulder, the stone guardian turned his footsteps along the narrow pathway. It took Reto a lot longer to get home, going at Boulder’s pace -- but the goblin had forgotten he was in a hurry.
Finally, they came out of the forest, stepping onto one of the streets on the outskirts of the city surrounding the great pyramid of the Rinji.
Boulder tilted back and back to look all the way to the top of the pyramid -- so high above even the tops of the jungle’s great trees. It was made a delicious golden sandy stone. He smiled. He’d seen the green quickwalkers and heard their thoughts -- but they’d been too fast to understand. He’d not understood what they had accomplished -- or how long he’d been walking.
“Comecomecome,” said Reto, beckoning Boulder on. But the great stone guardian was not ready yet to come into the city of the quickwalkers -- and he doubted that all of these small ones would welcome him as Reto had.
Still. He lingered there, becoming almost a statue himself. He saw a mother herding her three children, and a group of young warriors laughing, and a pair of brother priests climbing the great pyramid. Friends. Family. Companions. Boulder soaked it in, drawing strength from these sights.
Reto stood near him, looking confused.
“Comecome?” he asked.
Boulder shook his head and turned away. He didn’t belong here. He walked back the way he’d come and out into the forest. Still listening for his people.
Boulder returned to his quest.
He listened to the voices of the stones and the parrots and the little deer -- and heard none of his own people. Almost without realizing it, Boulder found himself circling closer and closer to the great pyramid again, listening for the voices of the little quickwalkers. He liked their flighty thoughts and their zeal for life in the forest. They made him happy.
It took a long, long time -- many years -- but eventually, he found himself again at the outskirts of the city around the great pyramid.
He stood at the forest’s edge, looking at the green folk going about the business of living.
One ancient goblin, bent double with age and hobbling on a cane, caught sight of Boulder in the trees. He waved his walking stick and came over to the stone guardian.
“Rockman!” he yelled. “Hellorockmanbeensolong.”
Boulder stared at him -- and recognized the little quickwalker he’d met. He’d grown old while Boulder was away.
“Waitwait!” said Reto. He hobbled away to one of the nearby houses, and returned a moment later followed by an old lady goblin and a pack of young quickwalkers. They gasped and stared at Boulder and Reto said: “See? See? Not crazy, afterall.”
One of the younger quickwalkers came tentatively up to Boulder -- and then climbed the stone guardian like he was a tree.
Startled, Boulder’s eyes went wide. The little creature running around tickled him! He sneezed, sending a cloud of insects up from his back. The child looked alarmed and climbed quickly back down -- but Boulder was delighted. Young stone guardians were not so light on their feet -- but the children of all creatures are somewhat the same.
He laughed for the second time in centuries.
Reto smiled -- proud that his family now knew the truth. He’d really seen a stone guardian. All his family came and saw their fill, and the neighbors asked questions, and even one of the priests arrived to make sure that the stone guardian meant no harm. When everyone left again, Reto remained
“Stay?” he asked Boulder. When he smiled, Boulder saw that he was missing two teeth. Reto did not seem to mind.
Boulder cracked his jaw. He’d been trying to make sounds like the quickwalkers, but he wasn’t sure this would work.
“Nooooooo,” he said, sorrowful. He still hadn’t given up on finding the other guardians.
Reto’s face fell. He shrugged, hunching over his cane and said, “I see. I thought so. Glad I got to see you again.”
With that he hobbled away, much more slowly than he’d come towards Boulder.
Boulder stayed where he was into the night, listening to the sharp cry of infants and the gentle murmur of conversations.
Boulder told himself that he was refreshed -- not saddened -- when he turned around near midnight, wishing to leave without further difficult goodbyes. He returned to listening. Always listening.
In the early morning, when the sun and the first birds awoke, the earth began to shake beneath Boulder’s feet. It rumbled angrily, twisting and bucking. Far away, Boulder heard a tree fall.
The guardian stopped and stood still. Earthquakes are uncomfortable things for beings made of stone and the magic of living things.
The shaking lasted a long time -- not longer than Boulder could remember, but much much longer than normal.
And Boulder thought of Reto and his family and the great pyramid.
The stone troll turned back towards the city, wondering. They would be fine, surely, without him. Boulder’s own people needed him. He needed to find the other stone guardians.
Except, perhaps there were none left.
And perhaps, there would be not many quickwalkers now.
For centuries, Boulder moved very slowly. Now he moved very fast.
He crossed the jungle, grateful that he’d lingered the night before -- reluctant to leave Reto and the goblins. He was right to worry.
The angry earth had knocked down many of the little stone houses, turning them into piles of rubble.
Reto’s family was crowded around their house, wailing and yelling for help. Boulder stomped up, and lifted one of the stone slabs of the roof away from the debris -- instinctively doing so in a way that kept the other rocks from shifting.
Reto was curled in a ball, shaking with fright.
“Comecome,” said Boulder. Or he tried to. It sounded more like: “cooombbbcoooommhmm!”
Reto looked up and his family scampered into the space Boulder cleared and pulled him to safety. Boulder set down the stone slab and went to the next collapsed house. And then the one after that. And on and on. The sun rose to its zenith and fell again. Goblins came and went -- helping their fellows out when Boulder freed them and directing the stone guardian to where more were trapped. The sun rose and set once more.
It had been a long, long time since Boulder felt his arms ache, felt tired and strained and weary. But some of the hallways of the great pyramid itself had caved in, and so he continued to clear debris. He lifted fallen stones and held them in place while the goblins propped up the wreckage. Another day and night passed.
Boulder did not have a good sense of time. He worked, steady and relentless, until he’d saved everyone he could. Then he returned to Reto’s house.
The family were thrilled to see him -- squeaking and crying their thanks for saving their crazy grandfather. Boulder smiled -- and then he went to the wreck of the house and examined the earth under it.
There was good stone here.
The guardian closed his eyes -- and roared out a word that the stone understood. It burst up, filling in the broken places in their home’s walls and creating a structure for Boulder to carefully replace what had been -- and now was again -- the roof.
The goblins were speechless -- and then jubilant. They danced and shrieked and spun in circles around Boulder.
He stayed with them for a moment, enjoying the celebration -- and then he moved to repair the next house.
For a dozen days and nights, he fixed the broken Rinji buildings -- including the great pyramid itself.
When he was done, a procession of goblins approached the guardian. They carried stone bowls of fruit and meat -- offerings to their new giant friend.
Pleased, Boulder sat down, took one of the bowls, dumped the fruit out of it, and ate the bowl.
At first the quickwalkers were surprised -- but they quickly cheered, and then went to fetch more rock for Boulder.
When Boulder finished, he returned to stand at the edge of the city and slipped into a deep sleep. Stone guardians do not sleep often -- and when they do, it is often for years. Distantly, Boulder was proud that he had helped the quickwalkers and sad. He did not wish to sleep and miss so much of what was happening in the world.
This time, however, he did not sleep for long. He woke to an itchy stone nose. Boulder sneezed, blinking abruptly awake. He found himself surrounded by flowers, with Reto standing nearby and one of his grandchildren sitting on Boulder’s head -- tickling his nose with a feather.
“Youhavesleptsolongfivedays!” said Reto, admonishing him. The old quickwalker had a bandange on his head still, but he looked quite well. He even did a creaky little dance, happy Boulder was awake.
“Stay?” asked Reto. “Stay?”
Boulder stretched and the young quickwalker with the feather clambered down and scampered away from the stone guardian. Boulder smiled.
He looked around, seeing the bustling city -- the merchants and the farmers selling to the young families and the old ladies, the spearmen in their neat uniforms, the priests saying prayers to consecrate the rebuilt houses.
Boulder decided that, if he wasn’t the last stone guardian, it would be up to the others to come and find him. He listened and listened -- and all he heard were the quickwalkers -- and smiled. It wasn’t such a bad thing, to be the last when you aren’t alone.