:: Article

The Stone Mill

By Ed Cottrell.

 

I wanted to see the machinery that produces grit, the stone specks that go into chicken feed. So I climbed the fence, broke in. Now I’m inside but I’m nowhere really: a kind of industrial barn, built from corrugated steel, a roof that arches like a ribcage. Every corner of this structure is filled with the movement of breath.

It will speak. But I’m waiting for the question. Because it holds a question, I think, but it won’t assume into language. There is the echo, the ‘✱ ! ’ – ‘ ✱! ’ of stones being split apart.

*

It’s not hard to understand the process that takes place here – the mechanics by which stones are chewed into a dark, sand-like matter, pounded by revolving hammers – and the necessity of grit is itself simple. Dusty handfuls of this are added to chickenfeed because the birds have no teeth, they need it to digest. If a chicken has no grit, or is fed the wrong kind, it cannot produce eggshells. The chicken will lay a soft egg with nothing to contain it but a pale membrane.

Does a chicken know what it is doing when it eats a piece of processed stone, holding it with the tip of its beak? That is not the question.

*

A young woman operates the machinery. She wears a mask and overalls, covered in the dust of the mill. When she saw me first she said, ‘Ha! What are you doing here?’ but I had no good answer. ‘I’m waiting,’ I told her. Just waiting. But how long ago was that? How long have I been waiting now? What’s the point of marking time? I rationalise it: if the building were simply to talk, it might hurt. It has a sensitive tongue, too much feeling. It traps every storm in its chest. I should listen and make sense of the consonants falling through the radiator.

*

I remember: from outside I’d watched the stones rolling into the entryway, clattering down the steel chute; the crazed roar. Every time I heard a stone go ‘ ✱! ’ inside the mill, I had the sincere feeling that the detonation had taken place in my chest. The space between each blast was just less than a second, there were perhaps eighty of these blasts per minute. Each noise was a stone being reduced to mealed rock.

*

I remember: outside the mill, I listened while staring down into an abandoned bathtub half-filled with rainwater. Aluminium cans, partly filled, floated on the surface, insulated from the mechanical noise that shook the ground. The water in the cans was clean, still and bright; light striking them collected inside – as if they were cargo boats carrying sunlight.

*

There is a pause in the noise, then a whirring: the building is catching its breath. I’m certain – it is reaching after speech! The walls turn into cheeks. Air stirs in the throat. There: the mill is inhaling slowly, its cartilage creaks. But it is only a resting breath; and if anything, the slight breath only distils this speechlessness.

A stone goes ‘ ✱! ’

I watch pale dust clouds flickering through the entry-hatch – the rock’s ghost floats towards the light, drawn along a pathway of sun.

*

Still it will not speak. It contains a question too insubstantial to discover. Greater questions are everywhere abundant. They demand to be asked.

This question must be nanoscopic, lost somewhere in this airy space.

*

A thousand years of speechlessness pass. It says nothing. I am leaving the stone mill, an expert in nothing.

*

The woman who operates the machinery (perhaps it is her great great great great granddaughter) says goodbye. She takes two handfuls of water, pressing her palms carefully together, then shows this to me. But when I look, hardly long enough to see my reflection, she drops the water and shouts, ‘ ✱ ’ just as a stone is detonated. ‘The sad thing is,’ she says, ‘that all of them have words living inside. And when they’re processed, they go silent.’

*

Outside the mill I wash my hands, covered in dust, dipping them to the wrist in the rainwater filling the bathtub, floating the aluminium cans. The water chokes. Thin mud runs from my skin and drifts beneath an aluminium hull. A cloud passes overhead and the light cargo vanishes. A moment later the cloud is gone, and the glistening cargo reappears. Two aluminium cans touch, chattering in the water.

*

Another stone rolls down the chute, into the mill, with a sweet rhythm it thrashes on the metal, and then – ‘ ✱! ’

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ed Cottrell‘s work has previously appeared in Neon MagazineBrittle Star and Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. He was a winner of Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Escalator programme in 2014, and in 2015 spent two months at Toji Cultural Foundation, South Korea. He is the winner of the 2018 Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction, was shortlisted for the 2017 London Short Story Prize, and selected to take part in ‘Platform’, an artist development programme run by Spread the Word, London’s Writer Development Agency. www.erghargh.com

ABOUT THE ARTWORK
Roland Penrose
, “Rose de sable” (1929)

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 12th, 2018.