Vladimir always carried the pebble with him. In his left coat pocket. On the desk, and even under his pillow as he slept.
It had been given to him by an unknown girl on the train. They happened to be in the same compartment. Her mother had slept, while she had spread a piece of cloth on the folding table before her. There she had lined up many colourful pebbles. When the child invited him to choose, Vladimir smiled patronizingly. Finally, as if drawn by one to the side of the rest, he made it his and for the past two months it had rarely left his grip.
It was small – it barely filled his palm. He fiddled with it, took delight in it. He felt an unusual attachment towards such an insignificant object. The gentle friction of skin on these soft and sensitive sides brought him peace unfelt before. Many hours had he spent in reverie, while he spun it from his finger joints to his palm.
Vladimir had learnt to see it solely with his skin. He knew every millimetre of it. Four of its sides were smooth, almost velvety. The fifth, in complete contrast, was exceptionally jagged and serrated, as if that was where it had been ripped off from the flesh of a large rock. His fingers traced every corner and angle, as if trying to find something new every time. One end began low and bit by bit, millimetre by millimetre rose, forming a beautiful hill with three peaks. The first was sharp and slightly leaning to the right. The second seemed to hesitate which way to lean. The third was the widest and with a flattened top resembling a bird's head. Between them two valleys seemingly formed.
Very often, when his thoughts meandered off to somewhere, he caught a movement or change on its surface and then he quickly looked at it. But it remained the same. A small and unremarkable tiny piece of rock.
With time the scenery on the jagged side seemed to have become more interesting and varied. More and more often he traced what was happening between the cracks. The "landscapes" began filling up with colours and sensations. He began "seeing" how on one side of the hill there was a forest, a river, and tall pines on both slopes of the valley. He almost smelled their fresh scent and heard the flapping of wild birds' wings high in the sky. In the evenings he could hear owls producing their unearthly war shouts. Crickets and frogs added magic to the place. There were beautiful flowers everywhere. Tulips and hyacinths, snowdrops and roses. He was amazed that they all grew in the same season. It was an unchanging, unspoilt beauty, but one that was somewhat boring after a while. There was no one there and Vladimir wondered why this heavenly place had been created at all.
In time he found that there was another valley. The place was endlessly different. Dark short grass and dead trees. There were no flowers and the sun barely shone. Animals rarely passed – a complete antithesis to the neighbouring valley. The rivers had gone dry. A dead place, full of the skeletons of a long-gone happiness. Quiet and ominous.
Vladimir enjoyed examining these two complete contrasts and wondering how it was possible for these two worlds to be divided only by a single peak.
One day, while examining the black valley, he noticed a house between the trees. Greyish and low. Without a fence and without a path to it. While wondering why he had never happened across it before, the door opened and a woman came out. Beautiful, with light eyes and dark hair. With his whole being he knew that this was Nona.
From this moment on, Vladimir began spending all his free time with her. He watched her get up in the morning, hang the clothes. Sing or go hunting. Once, he was so worried when night overtook her near a half-dry lake, that he didn't sleep all night, and instead guarded her while she camped.
Nona's life was hard but she endured it peacefully, almost happily. Despite her being alone and not speaking to anyone ever, he somehow could not imagine her complaining about carrying water from kilometres away or for having almost no crops in the small garden behind her house. The most favourite thing of both was when Nona sat down on her chair at night, facing the horizon. She contemplated the distance, he – her.
Vladimir often wondered what it must be like to be as alone as Nona, alone in this hopeless blackness.
Walking down the streets he caught himself trying to see her in the crowd. He yearned to hear her voice. To have a real conversation, even to embrace her. Lately he often imagined being there, in her world. Their world. He saw himself showing her the whole heavenly place on the other side. He imagined them living in an eternal summer, having set up their home, and how he took care of her.
Whether it was from these thoughts or from something else, Vladimir's nights became sleepless and long from the endless streams of thought. Just then he also noticed something that he thought was strange. Recently, life in the valley had become darker, and the days shorter.
Nona's garden was now completely fruitless. More and more rarely did she go hunting or walking, and she spent longer sitting on her chair. Life's pulse had somehow slowed down. The last few days Nona had been looking very thin and sick, but she was still moving. Ah, thought Vladimir, if only she knew that on the other side of the hill heaven awaited her, untouched by the sorrow of her world.
The more he dreamed of saving her, the more the darkness of her reality thickened. As if the clock of her remaining days had sped up imperceptibly.
One day she did not leave the house.
Vladimir became sick. He did not sleep, cried, screamed, and finally in complete exhaustion, he fell asleep, fingers intertwined around the pebble.
Several days passed before the neighbours decided to break down the apartment door to check if everything was alright. There was no trace of Vladimir. The only thing they found was a small pebble on the pillow of his bed.
Somewhere there, in some other world, he opened his eyes. He looked around. Dark short grass and dead trees. There were no flowers and the sun barely shone. Everything was quiet and sad. He noticed a house, greyish and low. Without a fence and without a path to it. The door opened and a thin female hand emerged.