the dabberstone Sep 14, 2021

by Terron Dodd

For hundreds of years the miserable village of Split lay strewn along the banks of the Mucky Scundgewater River. It was called Split because it was where the road that came over the mountains split to go down two different valleys. And it was miserable because the villagers were always unhappy and in a bad mood, saying grouchy things to each other. If they ever thought of anything happy or beautiful they kept it to themselves.
And it didn't help that the wind was always blowing the greyish-yellow gritty dust into everything, except for two or three months of the year when the rain turned it into mud which clung to their boots in great balls and got tracked into the houses. The people were so unpleasant that the traders who came over the mountains with their horses and mules and donkeys would have gone another way, if there had been any other way to go.
Sometime during that long caravan of years a little girl named Deelie lived in Split. She was just as unhappy as everyone else who lived there. Deelie's mother yelled and cursed at her children, as every mother did in Split. They couldn't curse back at her, of course, because they'd get smacked, but they cursed at each other and at their dolls and threw rocks at dogs and cats.
Deelie had a doll, and she had a dog. She never said anything nice to them in front of other people, but sometimes when no one was looking she hugged her doll and stroked her dog and cried. When she was angry she had her own personal curse. She would say "Dab, Dab, Dabberstone!" No one else ever said anything like that, but no one ridiculed her; they all understood it was a curse, and that was something they were very familiar with.
One day her mother was washing the clothes in her big tub by the well across the road from her house. She yelled for Deelie to bring her the soap and when she came running with it as quick as she could, instead of thanking her, her mother just told her she was slow as a snail and called her the worthless descendant of a donkey and even more hurtful things, if there are any.
Deelie ran away from her mother, through the narrow passage between her house and the next one downriver and climbed down the crumbling boulders to the river bed, crying as she went. She had to slow down as she went over the gravel and stones of the river bed, hopping from one stone to the next till she stopped on one. Here she jumped up and down and yelled, "Dab, Dab, Dabberstone!" Then she nearly fell off the rock because on the next boulder right in front of her suddenly there was a stubby little man no taller than herself. He was dressed all in brown and had a nasty grin on his face. "Well, go on!" he said.
"What do you mean, 'go on', and who are you?" she demanded suspiciously.
"My name is Cruddly Poot," he said, "and how can you not know what I
mean, 'go on' if you know to come to the Dabberstone and what to say when you get there? Somebody must've taught you. Have you forgotten what to do next?"
"What is a Dabberstone? I've just naturally said 'Dab, Dab, Dabberstone!' when I was mad, I don't know, ever since I could talk, I suppose. It just seemed the right thing to say. Nobody else I know says it and nobody said anything to me about it."
"But who showed you the Dabberstone?
"What is a Dabberstone? I asked you that already."
"You are standing on the Dabberstone! You mean to tell me nobody taught you about it? Why did you come here then?"
"My mother was mean to me and I was mad, so I just ran out here until I stopped and I said, 'Dab, Dab, Dabberstone!' and there you were in front of me."

"Oh MY!" he said, "I've never heard of this before! You ARE a natural! You have a remarkable talent! You must be meant to use the Dabberstone, if you just naturally came to it and called the right words. So, if nobody else has taught you, I will. You come and stand on the Dabberstone, jump up and down three times as you say, 'Dab, Dab, Dabberstone!' Then you say out loud your wish and it will happen."
"You mean I could wish for a horse, or a thousand gold pieces?"
 "No! No! No! The Dabberstone is for cursing! You could wish for a horse to break its leg, or for someone's thousand gold pieces to turn into a thousand bats and fly away, for instance."
She looked down at the Dabberstone. It was no bigger than most of the boulders in the river bed but instead of being crumbly and greyish-yellow, it was hard and almost shiny and looked as if it were made of yellow pebbles cemented together with hard light grey cement. The shape of it was like a round ball that had been squashed flat on top. Maybe the bottom was squashed flat too, but she couldn't see that
"Go ahead now, do it!" encouraged Cruddly Poot. She hesitated, and then she jumped three times.
"Dab, Dab, Dabberstone! I wish the clothesline would break and all the clothes fall in the dirt!"
"Very good!" said Cruddly Poot, "See you next time!" All of a sudden there was a strange noise and Cruddly Poot was gone. He didn't run away or even fly away. He was just not there. But a bad smell spread from where he had been and Deelie jumped from the Dabberstone to the next boulder and made her way back the way she had come. As she started through the passage between the two houses, she heard screams of rage followed by a stream of bad words. She cautiously peered out from the passage and saw her mother starting to pick up the washing out of the greyish-yellow dust and throw it back in the tub, cursing as she worked. Deelie backed out of sight so she couldn't be yelled at or made to come and help.  
She giggled to herself. It served her mother right. Next to the houses it stank, so Deelie went down near the water, which ran at the foot of the cliff at this time of the year. People hardly ever came here. The houses were a wall all along the riverbank, all built of greyish-yellow stone and two or three stories high, with never a window opening toward the Mucky Scundgewater. Every house had a little door in the wall so they could empty chamber pots and throw garbage, broken dishes, worn out shoes, dead cats and anything that had become useless down into the river bed. They didn't throw broken washing machines and fridges there because things like that weren't invented in those days, but they certainly would have if they'd had such things. Some houses had two of those doors, one for downstairs and one for upstairs. Most of them had their toilet hole in a little room propped up on braces hanging out over the bank.  
So it was like being between two walls - the houses on one side and the much higher wall of the greyish-yellow cliffs on the other. And when the snow melted in the mountains, a lot more water went down the river. Sometimes it filled the whole riverbed and then it washed away a good deal of the filth the village had thrown over the bank. But that didn't happen often, so bushes and small willow trees managed to take root here and there in the river bed. Deelie got on the riverside of one of those and watched the muddy water run down. It felt better to look at the water and at the crumbling cliffs than at the unhappy houses of Split. The wall of houses blocked the sounds of the people. What she heard was the quiet trickling of the water.  Occasionally a rock rolled down one of the gullies in the crumbling cliffs. A fluttering sound of bird wings settled in the bush behind her and took off again when she turned to look. Peace began to seep into her and was more delicious than the satisfaction she had had from seeing her mother's washing in the dirt. She would have stayed longer except she was getting hungry.

So she got up and walked back. She kept herself surrounded in a wrapping of quietness all that evening, through dinner and right up till bedtime. She did not make any sharp answer to any of the nasty things anyone said and did not even speak at all unless she had to. Her mother thought she must be sick.
But the next few days she had to do work for her mother, and everywhere she went she was surrounded by every variety of annoyance and blame and resentment and spite and all the rest of their dreary relatives. Some of it was aimed at her and some of it wasn't, but she felt it all the same. They scratched away at her blanket of quietness and peace till she couldn't find a ragged scrap of it anymore.
The worst was the other children.  When she didn't answer back their insults, for some reason that only made her the special target of their persecution.  It got worse and worse till some of them began to pull her hair. She almost yelled, "I hope your hair falls out!" when she remembered the Dabberstone. If she yelled that and then it happened she might get stoned for a witch. She had heard of that. It had happened before she was born, but a woman had yelled her threats at some people, and when that very disaster had actually happened to them, people began to suspect her, and then it happened again and the people of Split had chased this woman out of the village by throwing rocks at her and had kept on till they killed her.

So she just yelled some ordinary bad words and as soon as she could do it without being followed, she went down to the Dabberstone and wished for that girl's hair to fall out. It didn’t happen all at once, but over the next week it did fall out.  Before it had all fallen out she wished for a boy to be stung by 100 wasps, another girl to get a bad case of lice, and another to have all her clothes fall off in public. Another boy, she wished for him that he should be followed by a cloud of flies wherever he went and another that dogs should pee on him every chance they got. Cruddly Poot was delighted. He cheered and then vanished with some variety of the strange noise, and always left a bad smell.
The wasp stings and the lice were revenge but didn't really change the victim's attitude towards her. It wasn't so rare to have lice in those days. It annoyed the girl but didn't give other people a bad opinion. The hair falling out had mixed results; some ridiculed, some ignored it.  But the clothes falling off, and the flies and the peeing dogs all shifted the group's attention and she also began giving as nasty insults as they did. So things returned to what had been the normal misery of life in Split, except she had nightmares in which her hair was falling out while bugs were crawling all over her, a cloud of flies was tormenting her and a dog was trying to pee on her.
The nightmares were gradually fading when one day she went into her room and found her doll torn to bits. Her head was in one piece, but her body was torn to shreds and the wool that had stuffed her was scattered all over the floor. She ran to the Dabberstone and wished that whoever did it would be SMASHED, torn into as many pieces as the doll. She started back for the house still mad and crying.
That night, one of the longest mule trains ever seen in Split passed through. The moon was full; there was plenty of light. They didn't stop at an inn; they just kept going through town and out the other side. All the dogs were barking. In the morning she couldn't find her dog. She began to worry someone with the mule train had stolen him. She asked people if they had seen him. "What does he look like?" someone asked. "He's about so long," holding her hands out, "and he has medium-long, curly, black hair."
"Isn't that him there?"
"Where?" she turned around but saw no dog in any direction.
"There in the middle of the street." She looked again, confused. There was no dog in the middle of the street.  But the person who had spoken was pointing at the ground. Black hair was trampled into the dirt. She shrieked, "No! No! No!" But she knew it was true. There wasn't even one other black dog in Split. They were mostly a greyish yellow, very much like the color of the dust and the rocks. The ones that weren't were either a yellowish brown or a sort of dirty white. There was nothing left of her dog but ragged pieces of skin and hair.
She went to her room and cried and cried. When someone told her mother what the trouble was, her mother said, "Imagine crying over something as worthless as a dog!" But she didn't say anything else to Deelie about it. Maybe she liked the dog too, though she'd never admit it.
Deelie got up and went through the narrow passage and straight to the
Dabberstone, with a very determined look on her face. She got up on the stone, jumped three times, coming down very hard, "DAB, DAB, DABBERSTONE!" she yelled. Cruddly Poot appeared, rubbing his hands, with his grin nastier than ever.
"Excellent! Wonderful! Good for you!"
She fell down on her rear end in the hole where the Dabberstone used to be.
Cruddly Poot didn't vanish instantly this time. He looked horrified and let out a wail that turned into the sound you might make by putting your tongue between your lips and blowing. He got smaller and smaller. When he was the size of a melon, he flew up in the air and went round and round in aimless circles and zigzags the way flies do. He got smaller and smaller and the noise got smaller and smaller till it was like the buzzing of a fly. Finally, he got so small she couldn't see him anymore. It was hard to tell if he had gotten tinier till he vanished or if he had flown off into the distance. A very bad smell was left behind.

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