I remember reading “A Stone Woman” when it came out in The New Yorker in 2003.  Though it seems impossible, a very different me existed then. It was years before I was interested in reading magicalish things in  fiction and way, way before I was interested in writing about magicalish things myself.  (2003 was toward the end of the time where I seemed only  interested in making my life really difficult for myself, so difficult it seemed only  magicalish things could get me out of the messes I created – enter Los Angeles and my first trip to Burning Man!)

I have thought of this story occasionally in the intermittent years.  It’s the only Byatt I’ve read.  I thought of it the day before yeaterday when I was struggling with a transition from real to fantastical in my own work and had the divine instinct to revisted.  The story is excellent, and there is a lot to learn from the subtly of the plot. Byatt just makes you go with it.  You should go too!  You’ll be glad you went.

Here’s the key passage I found myself admiring:

The warmth of the water was nice. A few tense sinews relaxed. Time went into one of its slow phases. She sat and stared at the things on the rack. Loofah, sponge, pumice. A fibrous tube, a soft mess of holes, a shaped gray stone. She considered the differences between the three, all essentially solids with holes in them. The loofah was stringy and matted, the sponge was branching and vacuous, the pumice was riddled with needle holes. Biscuit-colored, bleached khaki, shadow gray. Colorless colors, shapeless shapes. The loofah and the sponge were the dried-out bodies, the skeletons, of living things. She picked up the pumice, a light stone teardrop, shaped to the palm of a hand. She felt its paradoxical lightness, then dropped it into the water, where it floated. She did not know how long she sat there. The water cooled. When she lifted herself, awkwardly, through the surface film, the pumice chinked against her flesh. It was an odd little sound, like a knock on metal. She put the pumice back on the rack, and touched her puckered wound with nervy fingers. Supposing something had been left in there? A clamp, a forceps, a needle? Not exactly looking, she explored her reconstructed navel with a fingertip. She felt a certain glossy hardness where the healing was going on.

The next thing she noticed was a spangling of what seemed like glinting red dust, or ground glass, in the folds of her dressing gown and her discarded underwear. It was a dull red, like dried blood. At the same time, she noticed that the threads of her underwear appeared to be catching, here and there, on the healing scars. As the phenomenon grew more pronounced, she touched the area tentatively, over the cotton of her knickers. Her fingers felt whorls and ridges, even sharp edges. Each day the bumps and sharpness, far from receding, grew bulkier. One evening, in the unlit twilight, she finally found the nerve to undress and tuck in her chin to stare down at herself. What she saw was a raised shape, like a starfish, like the whirling arms of a nebula. It was the color—or a color—of raw flesh, like an open whip wound or a knife slash. It trembled, because she was trembling, but it was cold to the touch, as cold and hard as glass or stone. From the star-arms, red dust wafted like glamour. She covered herself hastily, as though what was not seen might disappear.

The next day, it felt bigger. The day after, she looked again, in the half-light, and saw that the mark was spreading. It had pushed out ruddy veins into the tired white flesh, threading sponge with crystal. It winked. It was many reds, from ochre to scarlet, from garnet to cinnabar. She was half tempted to insert a fingernail under the veins and chip them off.

She thought of it as “the blemish.” It extended itself—not evenly, but in fits and starts, around her waist, like a shingly girdle pushing long fibrous fingers down toward her groin, thrusting out cysts and gritty coruscations above her pubic hair. There were puckered weals where flesh met what appeared to be stone. What was stone—what else was it?

One day, she found a cluster of greenish-white crystals sprouting in her armpit. These she tried to prize away, and failed. They were attached deep within; she felt their stony roots stirring under the skin surface, pulling at her muscles. Jagged flakes of silica and nodes of basalt pushed her breasts upward and flourished under the fall of flesh, making her clothes crackle and rustle. Slowly, slowly, day by quick day, her torso was wrapped in a stony encrustation, like a corselet. She could feel that under the stones her compressed inwards were still fluid and soft, responsive to pain and pressure.

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