Feathers or Stones

Feathers or Stones

Once, long ago, there was a poor writer who lived in the depths of a forest with his wife. He would spend his evenings putting words to page while his wife rested by the fire. As she did so she would read those stories which were complete, and yet not yet ready for market. Using a special red pencil, she would note occasional errors and put to him questions the writing had left unresolved, in order that his next version of the story might be improved.

During the day she would walk out into the forest and spend her time hewing mighty trees, for she was a woodcutter by trade. He, meanwhile, would tend to the small garden, and every few days journey into the nearby town, riding down the river on a mighty raft formed of entire tree trunks she had stripped, all lashed together, and he would walk back home before sundown. Thus they had a modest supply of silver, and the wife was content they be together every evening.

But the writer was not content.

Though he wrote those stories which he would be most happy to read, he brought in very little silver for his efforts. He dreamed of actual gold, and of an audience beyond his adoring wife. And so it was that he would always bring new stories to town, and would make the rounds of the publishing houses there, to see if they had an interest in his tales. Soon enough he had exhausted the town’s small selection of publishers, and the writer rarely had reason to not head home in plenty of time to spend another evening with his wife. And she would read his stories, and he would write others, and years passed in this way.

But one day, as he finished his task of selling the lumber his wife had provided, he noticed a small sign in the marketplace, and was overjoyed to see that a new publishing house had opened in the town. Now it just so happened that the writer had a new story that day, and decided to make the most of this unexpected opportunity.

The mysterious woman within read his manuscript at once, and the writer was elated at her reaction, which was not only an offer to publish this story, but at an unheard of rate of pay: three silver coins!

But there was more: a magic stone.

“This stone,” the publisher explained, “must remain a secret. You must sew this into your pillow, and its power will enable you to write tales that good folks far and wide will most desperately want to read.”

“But does that mean they will not want what I am writing now?” asked the writer, his unease dimming, for a moment, those visions of wealth that swam in his head.

“The stone just shows what people want, it is up to you to decide to write them,” the woman answered him, ushering him back out into the street. “Of course, if you’re not interested…”

But the writer was very interested indeed, and rushed home to tell his wife about the magic stone. But by the time he had arrived, he’d remembered that the stone was to be a secret, and so he just told her he had sold a story to a new publisher, and might well be able to sell more. His wife was thrilled at this news, and immediately suggested those stories of his of which she was especially fond. But, though he agreed her ideas were good ones, the writer knew that none of those would do. With his wife sleeping soundly beside him, exhausted from her work, the writer opened the seam of his pillow and dropped the magic stone among the down within it. His sleep that night was full of strange dreams, which, when he considered them in the morning, seemed to form a detailed story. Amazed, he sent his wife off into the woods with a kiss, and set about putting the new story onto the page. As it grew dark outside, his wife read his newest work.

“It is so very different from what you’ve written before,” she noted. Seeing his nervous state, she was quick to reassure him. “But I enjoyed it very much.” And she took out her red pencil, and set to work, and together they created an even finer version of the tale, strange as it was.

It was with elation that the writer hurried back into town the next day, dashing through the forest because there were not yet enough logs to ride downstream. The mysterious publisher greeted him at the door, took his manuscript under her arm, and handed him a gold coin in exchange.


“Will you not read it?” he asked her, unable to hide his surprise. But the woman shook her head.

“I’m certain the people will love it,” she said, and bid him good afternoon, with the hope she might see him again tomorrow. The writer, amazed at his good fortune, traveled home at very nearly a run, and then sought for his wife among the depths of the forest, in order to show her the gold he’d earned with his story. His wife wanted to set aside her work for the day, in order to celebrate, but the writer told her that he had another story to write, and so he left her to her labors while he went to his.

This new story was even stranger than his last, and the writer struggled to set it down as his dreams had revealed it. The language needed was of a bizarre cast, and the events it detailed were of a nature he’d never explored before. His wife, when she read it that night, paused, then smiled at him, declaring it very daring and bold. That night, certain he’d be unable to sleep, the writer felt within his pillow for the magical stone that was the root of his new success. But to his surprise, deep within the downy feathers, he felt two stones, hard and uncomfortable. Before he knew he’d fallen asleep, he awoke in the morning, a new story within his head, and a third stone in the pillow beneath it.

And so it went for a long time. The stories would be traded for gold, the secret stones within his pillow would slowly grow more numerous, and his wife would note how very odd his new tales were. Story after story arose in this way, all of them given to the woman in town, all of them worth gold. All of them corrected and improved by his wife, who would sit by the fire, her pencil in hand. But her joy in reading them seemed less and less, as time went on.

Finally she could take no more.

“Why, this is not your writing at all!” she exclaimed, casting down his latest effort. “This is nothing like what you used to write. Tell me, my love: are stories such as this truly what you want to write? What you love to write?”

And the writer realized that his wife had not truly enjoyed his new, magical writing, but had merely tolerated it, the way he’d tolerated the secret stones within his pillow. But the stones had grown so numerous that his sleep was uneasy most nights. Yet he reasoned that the secret was worth keeping, and the stories worth continuing to write, for the gold his stories brought in was more than he’d ever known. And so he continued to write, and his wife continued to ply her trade. But in the evenings she would not read his work, and even withheld her red pencil, forcing him to mark his own words in blue.

More time passed in this way. The writer produced stories at exceptional speed, trading them for gold. His pillow became dreadfully uncomfortable, his dreams more so. His wife cut down trees during the day, and sat darning her socks at night. She no longer read his stories. Around them, gold sat in piles, for there was little they needed.

At last came the night when his pillow allowed no further sleep, so filled with stones had it become. The writer lay awake all that night, wondering what he would do without his magical dreams. What would he write? And then he saw that his wife was awake, too, reading one of his old, forgotten stories, the last of those that no one had loved but her.

And the writer, seeing at last the error of his ways, ripped open his pillow, expecting to show her piles of stones within. But among the feathers and down he found just the one magical stone he’d been given, and as his wife looked at it, it faded from her palm. He apologized to her, then, for keeping his secret, and letting his desire for more readers cause him to neglect the one he valued the most.

She forgave him, and the next morning went out into the wood, whistling merrily, while he rode a log raft into town. And there he saw that his mysterious publisher was gone, the office empty as if it had never been occupied. And when he got home, he saw that the gold, too, had been an illusion, for the vast piles were missing without a trace.

That evening, he sat and wrote, and later still his wife took out her red pencil, and he watched as she read his newest story, which had entered his mind in an idle moment during the walk home, and wouldn’t thereafter leave him. And though she employed her red pencil liberally, he could see that she enjoyed it very much. And that was enough for him.

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Aonghus Fallon

I think we can all see what you’re doing here – a biting indictment of the large publisher in favour of the small imprint. The large publisher will flatter you while also encouraging you to make your work more commercial, right? And then only publish your book in a virtual format. Whereas the small publisher unconditionally loves your work and furthermore, publishes it in a series of handsome leather-bound volumes – the fact that the mc’s wife was a tree-cutter (re publishing work in hard copy) was a significant clue in terms of the latter and a clever inversion of the whole disparaging ‘dead tree’ reference to traditionally published books by so called ‘indies’.


Mike Glyer

This is wonderful!

[…] DREAMS. Read Aaron Starr’s amazing parable “Feathers or Stones” at Black Gate. […]


This really reached me. My spouse holds the red pencil in our house and helps me not to lose my way.

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