By Meg McKinlayYoung Adult Walker Books Australia
A Single Stone
Every girl dreams of being part of the line – the chosen seven who tunnel deep into the mountain to find the harvest. No work is more important. Jena is the leader of the line – strong, respected, reliable. And – as all girls must be – she is small; her years of training have seen to that. It is not always easy but it is the way of the things. And so a girl must wrap her limbs, lie still, deny herself a second bowl of stew. Or a first. But what happens when one tiny discovery makes Jena question everything she has ever known? What happens when moving a single stone changes everything?
In A Single Stone Meg McKinlay pulls readers into the claustrophobic world of Jena. She is leader in a line of girls who venture deep into the mountain in search of mica, a mineral that sustains their village through long, isolated winters. For Jena, there is nothing but the rock and the village. In her world, being small is valuable. Because being small means being able to sneak through narrower gaps, mine just a little more mica, survive a little bit longer.
Within this strictly confined setting, McKinlay has created a world of sparse utilitarianism. So prized are girls small enough to fit into the almost impenetrable cracks in the mountain, that they undergo rigorous binding as children, muscles fighting the torturous wrapping until their bodies submit. Girls barely eat, because if they are chosen to be one of the seven on the line, their family is rewarded. And mothers are celebrated for giving birth dangerously early.
This book relies on very little apart from the growing sense of claustrophobia that is echoed at every level of the tight narrative. Jena’s story is enough. The sense of stifled emotions and stunted opportunities spill over the spaces left by McKinlay’s poetic style – the silences speak a great deal in this novel, as is evident by its length. This book recalls early dystopian successes – even Atwood – in its complex simplicity. Using precisely chosen language, Meg McKinlay has created a literary genre novel that will kick-start the imaginations of young readers, leaving them to fill in the horror, suspense and hope on their own. It is a journey readers will willingly submit to, coming out the other side invigorated and looking for more.
First the fingertips and then the hand. Choose your angle wisely, girl; there’s no forgiveness in bone. Rotate the shoulder, let the head and hips follow … there.
The Mothers’ words echoed in Jena’s mind as she eased into the crevice, flattening herself against the rock. When she was through, she paused, waiting for the next girl. They were deep now, in the heart of the mountain. Around her, the earth pressed so tightly it was hard to tell where her body ended and the stone began.
She sighed into the quiet dark. This was the work she loved – when there was nothing but ahead and behind, nothing but this steady movement on bellies and elbows. Seven girls nose to toe, wearing stone like skin as they made their way towards the harvest, a thin rope looping them together in an unbroken line. A finger extended, an elbow scythed onto rock, hunting leverage. A toe caught, kicked, gained for itself an inch. Another.
'Through there?' The voice was barely a whisper but Jena heard the tremor in it all the same. The rope pulled at her waist as the girl behind her slowed and then stopped. 'But how ...?'
'It’s all right.' Before Jena could reply, the answer came firmly from the back of the line. Though the voice had the hollow quality all sound took on down here, Jena knew immediately who it belonged to.
Kari might not have been chosen to lead the line but there was no one more reliable. She was always ready with the right thing at the right time: a soft tug on the rope to remind a girl she was not alone, a handful of well-placed words to quell her rising doubt. 'You’ll be fine. You’ve trained for this. Just take it slowly.'
'Of course. I’m sorry.'
The rope slackened as the girl began to move, gingerly at first and then with more confidence. Jena waited until she was almost through and then resumed her own methodical progress, slowing every now and then to press a hand to the rock or shine her headlamp into a fissure. Always searching, always probing. This way, or that?
The girl behind her did not speak again but a few minutes later something brushed Jena’s foot. The lightest finger-touch, a whisper all its own.
Jena would not fault the girl for it. She was young and Jena remembered those days herself – that urge to reach out, to feel just for a moment the warmth of flesh instead of stone.
What was this one’s name again? As Jena twisted herself around a bend, her mind reached for it, then shied away. The village was not so large that a name would evade her if she truly wished to recall it. But it didn’t matter yet. Not when a girl was so new, on her very first harvest. Not until you were sure she would last.
This girl was not the first they had trialled since the Mothers pulled Petria from the line but she was by far the most promising. The last one had been a disaster; when the mountain began to narrow around her, she panted and flailed, hands thrashing at the rock.
There was no telling with some – the wooden training maze and shallow surface tunnels did not always predict how a girl would fare deep in the mountain. And though there was disappointment when the years of training came to nothing, the village tried not to lay blame. Not everyone could be born to the work of the harvest. Not everyone could adapt, or be adapted.
Later, Jena had seen that girl working in the fields. She would be useful out there in a dull sort of way – turning the soil over, searching for yams and roots. Jena shivered at the thought of the blade striking earth. There was no place for a digger inside the mountain.
What they sought in here – the precious flakes of mica that would warm the village through the long, snowbound winter – did not call for digging. When the harvest was ready, it peeled away cleanly at the slightest touch. The mountain saw their need, made them a gift of it.
The sole of Jena’s foot prickled where the new girl had traced her tentative fingernail.
It was late in the season to be breaking in a tunneller but with Petria gone, there was little choice; they could hardly go in with just six.
It was better that the girl came now. Better that they knew if she would join them next season. Or if they might need to look to another. There were decisions to be made. Winter was nearly upon them; already there was a telltale crispness in the air.
Jena’s belt snagged briefly as she hauled herself across a jagged rock. What few supplies she carried – a knife, a pouch, a flask of water, some straps of dried meat – were bound tightly against her side, so close they might almost have been part of her.
Just ahead, the space appeared to widen a little. Her eyes strained into the gloom. This deep, her headlamp offered no more than a feeble glow. The other girls carried their own, but these would remain unlit until Jena found the harvest and they spread out to begin flaking mica from the rock’s surface.
Although it was the mica’s warmth that kept the village alive, its light was useful too. When the line tunnelled, it was mica chips they used in their lamps; they would not waste them when those behind had no need to see, when all they had to do was follow.
Sometimes Jena wondered whether she needed it herself. Perhaps she might make her way just as surely without the light. In her mind’s quiet eye, the network of caves and interconnecting passages – the crevices and cracks through which the mountain allowed them entry – shifted this way and that, an invisible map remaking itself with every piece of ground.
There were real maps back at the village, a patchwork of pages the Mothers insisted Jena add to after each harvest. Though she did as directed, she had no use for them herself; their simple, flat surfaces could hardly speak for what was inside the mountain. The maps in her mind were complex and beautiful, intersecting and flowing across each other like living, growing things, but there was no way of getting them onto the page.
These days, each harvest carried them into new territory. The surface mica was long-depleted, the shallow tunnels stripped generations ago. It was said that in the first years after Rockfall, in the time of the Mothers’ great-great-grandparents, the line could go in for an hour and return with full pouches. But even if those stories were true, those days were long past. Every harvest called for them to go deeper – and darker.
As if to underscore the thought, Jena’s lamp flickered, then dimmed. She reached into her pouch for another chip. Soon the mica would wink out altogether, throwing them into utter blackness.
She removed the dying chip from its housing and struck the new one with her fingernail. It flared immediately into pale blue light, sending ghostly shadows onto the walls. She pressed it into place and then slid the spent chip into a crack in the nearby stone. It was the simplest of gestures.
Another girl might have tucked the chip into her pouch, carried it back to the village. It would not have been odd to do so, for spent mica had many uses. It could be hammered flat, rolled into sheets of metal from which things like tins and cooking pans were made. Most of the mica they burned was turned eventually to such purposes, and that was as it should be. In the closed world of the valley, waste was a luxury they could not afford. But it felt different when they were tunnelling. In here, it seemed right that she return it to the mountain.
From A Single Stone
Text © 2015 Meg McKinlay
Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Australia Pty Ltd
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist