The Adder Stone
By JD Miller
Barnie knew better than to run across the rocks, which were piled right up against the shore like a million gray eggs of different sizes. She’d done it before and fallen, just about breaking her knees. So instead, she crossed them with a series of careful jumps, zig-zagging from one big stone to another, probably tearing the holes in her shoes just a little wider.
“Granny,” she called, both hands closed in front of her, but opening as soon as she reached the old woman’s presence. She thrust up her pale, wet palms, and her grandmother smiled her toothless smile.
“Well would y’look at that,” she said, her voice warm and rough like the sweaters she made her granddaughter wear, and her eyes a little surprised. Normally, all Barnie had to show for her efforts were broken seashells. “That, my dear,” granny said, “is an adder stone.”
“Adder stone,” Barnie repeated. She lowered her hands and stared at the little flat rock she’d found. There was a hole in its center, like somebody’d stuck a pencil clean through it. “What is it?”
“That right there,” said her grandmother, “is a talisman, my dear. A thing ‘o old magic. Aye, yes, don’t look at me like that! You think your granny don’t know what she’s talking about, eh?”
Barnie didn’t argue, even if she had made a disbelieving face. She was right to be skeptical to some degree. The old woman was always trying to convince her that trolls lurked in caves, or goblins were responsible for missing chickens. These were the kind of jokes her parents never would have made, in the city. She’d never even heard them talk about magic.
Her grandmother went on. “You know, in the old tongue it’s called Gloine nan Druidh—Druid’s Glass. It’s said that they exist to protect you from harm, even from spells cast right over you. Wear it ’round your neck, and no hex or geas can bewitch ye. Folk w’d weave ’em into the bed frame to protect from nightmares and the like, too. And it’s said—”
The old woman bent down low so she was closer to her granddaughter’s ear, her smoke-stained breath warm despite the cheek-biting wind, “that if you hold it up to your eye and peer through, you can catch glimpses of the world of the faefolk, comin’ through the cracks in the light.”
Barnie squinted her eyes at the woman, who’s face betrayed no trace of dishonesty, and never did. She straightened her naturally bent back again, and crossed a heart over her big, wool-covered chest. “Cross me’ heart,” she said.
The little girl looked at the stone again, so black against her white hand. She looked back toward the spot she’d found it, where the waves crawled over the rocks on their bellies, and wondered if maybe it wanted to go back there. Maybe it felt at home, there.
Her grandmother took the pipe from her pocket and stuffed it full of tobacco, striking an oversized match on the box, which sizzled behind the gnarled knuckles of her cupped hand. A few gray hairs had escaped her headscarf, and were blowing sideways in the wind.
Barnie stepped closer again, and held out her hands. If this stone could protect you from nightmares, she thought, then her grandmother should have it. Nobody else she knew had such bad dreams, such loud dreams. The kinds of dreams that could shake the whole house, and leave Barnie awake beside the fire, with the cowering dogs.
“You can have it,” she said. But granny shook her head, smiling with her lips.
“Finders keepers, lassie. Magic like that can’t be transferred. It’s yours and yours alone. When we get home, how about we put a string ‘round it, and make a pendant?”
Barnie nodded. She liked the idea of wearing a piece of this place around her neck. She didn’t have to go home for months, but already the thought of leaving behind these rocky beaches, or the tangled wood at the top of the high cliffs, or the little gray farmhouse with its crooked chimney, was enough to make her sad all the way to her young bones.
Granny started away, surprisingly agile after a lifetime spent navigating these ankle-twisting rocks, despite her age and the angle of her spine. Smoke went up from her like the engine on a train.
“Come along, Barnie,” she called over her shoulder.
But Barnie looked up at the sky, a sort of slate gray, with cracks of white shining through it. She looked at the water, which was a darker gray still, and boasted a million secrets. And finally, back to the stone. She held it up to her eye, almost black, even though it was practically dry by now.
She peered through the little hole like it was a keyhole in a door that locked a forbidden room.
But all she could see was the same exact beach, perhaps a little blurrier from all the strain. She perused the coast like she was a pirate looking through a telescope, from the waves to the boulders to the hills, finally passing over granny’s big-shouldered shape.
But as the stone passed over granny, Barnie could swear that something strange happened. In the moment that the tiny hole framed her, it seemed, for just a moment, like the old woman was standing straight—and it seemed like, from the spine that Barnie knew was twisted and stooped, there were wings, glassy and glowing, like a million pieces of rainbows. And instead of a white head-scarf, covering her oversized ears, there was something shining and golden—
It was so sudden, so surprising, that Barnie instinctively looked up from the stone. The old woman was grumbling and calling again for her granddaughter to hurry up before she caught cold. By the time she got the stone back up to her eye, granny just looked like granny. Maybe it had been a trick of the light, she thought. Or more likely, of an overactive imagination, like the time she thought she’d actually seen that troll in that cave, or the flick of a iridescent mermaid’s tail darting beneath the waves. Her parents would start to worry, if they found out she was seeing things.
“Coming,” she said aloud, and squeezed the stone tightly in her fist, as she zig-zagged over the rocks again, toward home.