The ‘be careful what you wish for’ story has been a staple of folk tales long before such classics as The Monkey’s Paw. Time and again we are shown that the greedy will starve as they turn their world to gold, and those that want to be left alone are soon marooned on desert isles or ostracised from society. And today’s story, while not in the form of someone being granted wishes, comes at this from a more subtle angle.
Randolph Helgar lives in Greenwich Village, and one day he passes by a bookstore he hasn’t seen before. While the books aren’t for sale, only to rent (they’re part of the owner’s own collection), the shop sells many other odds and ends, and in one box he comes across…
“Magic charms?” said Randolph.
“Yes,” the man said slowly. “Some are real, some are not.”
“And I suppose the real ones are more expensive.”
“They are all roughly the same price. It’s up to you to decide which ones are real.”
The one Randolph chooses is a smooth black stone that fits nicely into the palm of his hand. The shopkeeper calls it a touchstone, and says the man who sold it to him described it as embodying the harmony of yin and yang together. And when Randolph takes him home, he really does feel peculiarly calm.
There was a party that night at Gene Blake’s apartment on the floor below, but for once Randolph didn’t feel like going down. Blake was four years younger than him, and suddenly today the difference seemed insuperable; Blake told off-center jokes about integration in the South, talked about writers Randolph only knew by the reviews in the Sunday Times, and was given to drinking Scotch and milk. No, not tonight, he told Margo.
For some reason I can think of no better form of the touchstone than the way it’s described; if you had an object that made you feel contended with the world, a smooth black stone in the palm of your hand seems like the perfect fit. There’s something natural about it bestowing calmness, like those pebbles that you’re meant to grind together one-handedly to remove stress.
And I like how quietly the story proceeds. It’s told from Randolph’s point of view, so even as his behavior changes his narration doesn’t comment on it, not even noticing that anything’s different. He’s already content; why be introspective? The harmonious mood permeates the whole story, even when the narrative is showing that it’s not always a good idea to be perpetually at peace. Peaceful people do not, for example, feel a pressing need to get up at the alarm clock to get to the office on time, and therein lies the danger.
Still, wouldn’t all of us like a touchstone of our own?
Touchstone by Terry Carr
Word count: 4,500
First published: Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1964
Where to find it: Magic for Sale, edited by Avram Davidson, 1983, Ace Books
Top Fantasy, edited by Josh Pachter, 1985, J.M. Dent
The Light at the End of the Universe, collection, 2012, Gateway / Orion
Sci Fiction, June 4 2003, edited by Ellen Datlow