The Rock People
by Frederick Rustam
“They tell me things.”
The little girl squirmed in the big front-porch chair they’d put her into for the interrogation. She knew these two were not nice people. Her parents told her they took bad girls away, so she was being very helpful, even though she hadn’t been bad and knew they wouldn’t understand her situation.
“What kind of things, Millie?”
“Things that happened before we came here.”
The social workers from Child Protective Services looked at each other, as if each believed the other might have an explanation.
“Can you take us to these rocks, Millie?” asked the man. “They’re not very far from the house, are they?”
“Do we have to go there, Phil?” complained the woman, who had already gotten sweaty and dusty during the long drive from the county seat. “What difference will it make, anyway?”
These government people hadn’t been born on this poor, arid planet. They’d been reassigned here, and they hoped that some others who’d also gotten into trouble with their bosses would replace them so they could go back to the green world they’d come from. That some lifeforms here might differ radically from the humanoid norm was an alien concept to them. They chose to view the girl’s problem in a conventional way.
“I’m not sure, but I have a feeling there may be some psychological significance in the configuration of the rock outcrop. I want to snap a photo for her file.” He asked the girl, “Will you take us there?”
“Good. We’ll go now.” The man helped Millie from the chair. Her parents stood silently by, not daring to interfere with the government people, who knew best how to handle their problem. As they led her down the steps of the porch, Millie repeated what she’d told them earlier because she thought it was important.
“But they aren’t rocks. They’re hard people.”
* * *
The late-afternoon sun ochered the rocks, an improvement over their natural gray. The outcrop stood alone and supreme on the arid, rolling terrain of goatgrass and thorny catchbush. The two civil servants were unimpressed, but they made the most of their fatiguing hike by trying to see some significance in the shape of the rocks. The man took a photograph with the sun at his back thrusting his shadow menacingly toward the rocks like a broadsword of challenge.
“I told you,” said the woman. “They don’t look like anything but a bunch of smooth, round boulders.”
“They made themselves like that. It’s the way they want to be,” offered Millie, helpfully.
The man suddenly saw some significance in the rocks. “Aha!”
“Notice how each boulder in the group is separated from those nearby by a slight distance. Each one has its own place on the ground.”
The woman believed this to be of no significance. She decided to fish for something bigger.
“Do the Rock People have names, Millie?” she asked.
“Uh huh. That one’s called Perigot.” She pointed to the largest rock. “He’s the leader.” Then, to the amazement of the social workers, she named the others as “Croushtar,” “Merelani,” “Wantras” -- and some other names containing harsh, foreign sounds which she pronounced quite fluently.
“What a well-developed delusion,” commented the man.
“I’ll say,” added the woman. “I’ve never heard a four-year-old devise such complex names for imaginary friends before.”
Millie listened as the government people talked about her delusion. The Rock People had told her that outsiders wouldn’t see the truth.
“Are they talking to your mind now, Millie?” asked the woman.
Millie stared evasively at the ground and doodled in the dust with a sneakered foot. “Because they’re afraid you might hear.”
* * *
Three days later, having conferred with their supervisor and made their decision, the social workers returned to the farmhouse to protect Millie from her folly by taking her away from the rocks. The girl’s parents were waiting for them on their porch.
“She’s not here,” said Millie’s father to the skeptical government people. “She’s been missing for three days, now,” added her mother. “We’ve looked everywhere. We’re worried sick about her.”
“Have you checked the rocks?” asked the government man.
“From a distance,” admitted Millie’s father, guiltily.
The social workers assumed this meant the parents were afraid they might find the child’s body at the outcrop. That mom and dad might be afraid of the rocks never occurred to them.
“We’ll go there, then, and have a close look.”
“Do we have to, Phil?” asked the government woman, even though she was wearing sensible shoes this time.
* * *
The social workers approached the rock outcrop. The sun was high and the boulders cast stingy shadows, as if they were saving themselves for the cooler hours of early evening. The man screwed-up his face as if something were bothering him. The woman noticed this.
“What’s wrong, Phil?”
In answer, the man took from his shirt pocket a print of the photo he’d taken of the rocks, three days earlier. He compared the photograph with the scene before him.
“There’s something different about the outcrop, Esther.”
“What? It looks the same to me.”
He gave her the photograph. “Look at this and see if you can spot that small boulder out on the right -- that one there,” he pointed.
She compared the photograph with the rocks, but in the photo she couldn’t find the rock her colleague pointed out. She could see all the others: “Perigot,” “Merelani,” etc. She recalled the ridiculous names without amusement.
“You’re right. It’s not in the photo.” Her amazement was not slow in coming. “How can that be? It must be an optical illusion.”
The government man squinted at the new rock for some time before replying. Before he spoke, a little smile replaced the analytical pursing of his lips.
“Maybe the Rock People gave Millie sanctuary.”
The woman scowled while she considered this remark for a moment. Then, she burst out laughing and mouthed a shocking obscenity. “The sun must have addled you, Phil. Come on, let’s get back to the house before the snakes come out of their holes.”
Copyright © 2007 by Frederick Rustam