The Stoneheart Problem

Poetry

Once there was a people whose hearts were made of stone. They looked in every way just like ordinary people, and their hearts worked just like ordinary fleshy hearts, except that the stone hearts made little grinding sounds as they pumped blood. That sound was enough to tell the stone-hearted people apart, if you listened closely.

For a long time – oh, hundreds of years – the stone-hearted people were euthanised at birth. Stories were told about the terrible things that stone-hearted people would do if they weren’t killed: the hidden bands of stone-hearted people who stole and ate children, the forest-raised escapees who could turn your own heart to stone with just one touch, the distant island where the stone-hearted people were building terrible weapons with which to wage another war on good, normal flesh.

But every so often a kindly or cowardly or guilty mother or father would, when they heard the grinding inside the chest of their newborn, hide their stone-hearted baby away. They learned to make special bindings from rabbit-fur that could dampen the sound of their child’s grinding heart, as long as they all remained careful. Usually, the hidden stone-hearted people would be found out sooner or later and got rid of. But, every so often, one hidden stone-hearted person would survive and, even more rarely, would find and recognise another stone-hearted person, and they would have hidden stone-hearted children of their own.

The families of stone-hearted people stayed hidden. They knew all too well their history, how whole villages of stone-hearted people were discovered and then removed from the world. Many families died. Many stone hearts were ground into dust (because the dust of a stone heart made a medicine that could cure any sickness, so it was said). But, again, some survived, and some became village healers, or teachers, or minor functionaries of local government, their stone hearts bound safely beneath their furs, and in that way, quietly at first, people began to say different things about the stone-hearted people.

Obviously they couldn’t feel as ordinary people could – but did that truly make them evil? What was ‘evil’, after all? Naturally, the sound of their stone hearts grinding was sickening to the soul, and doomed them to a poor excuse for a life, but weren’t they more worthy of pity than hatred? Of charity, even? Under the encouragement of the hidden stone-hearted, certain fashionable types among the wealthy classes began to set up foundations to study the phenomenon of geobiology, which led to charitable colonies where stone-hearted people were permitted to live under supervision, which led, in the fullness of time, to a certain kind of freedom for the stone-hearted people, and a certain kind of pride among those who called themselves Stonehearts.

It must be said there were some few among the stone-hearted people who thought they were changing their lot in a different way. Once or twice a laboratory was burned down, and there were bombings of government facilities which led to more than a few casualties. But most of the stone-hearted people looked down on these unfeeling rebels, and called for patience, fortitude and persuasion by example. After all, look at what their arguments had already won.

Thus, little by little, the stone-hearted people became part of ordinary society. Not its most welcome part, because the incessant grinding would set anyone’s teeth on edge, but a part nonetheless. Stonehearts made good farmhands, it was said: something about their greater muscle density, or their natural understanding of minerals in the soil. Their occasional outbursts and little rebellions were soon put down. One or two of them were capable of really quite fascinating art, and their peculiar outlook did sometimes offer an insight that a trained philosopher could make good use of. But they weren’t, of course, proper people. Their hearts were still made of stone.

Many stone-hearted people settled for this state of affairs. They had survived for hundreds of years and they weren’t about to risk that now, whatever the rebels might say. Some stone-hearted people did still argue that they deserved things like representation in government, or money to build better houses for their poor, but when they did they were met with the same old arguments: Your stone hearts can’t feel as ours can, so there’s no point wasting that on you. Your hearts don’t need what a real heart needs.

And so those same stone-hearted people, patient and strong, worked hard to become philosophers, lawyers and writers of books. They developed a wealth of scientific evidence that stone hearts and flesh hearts were functionally the same, with the same feelings and thoughts and needs. They developed complex legal arguments that showed that the rights of stone-hearted people were and had always been fundamental to the way the government worked. They wrote rich and deep books that questioned the very difference between stone and flesh, that undermined even the reality of a stone heart’s grinding sound. And the stone-hearted philosophers and lawyers and writers of books presented their case, and asked for things like representation in government and better houses for their poor, but when they did they were met with the same old arguments: Your stone hearts can’t feel as ours can, so there’s no point wasting that on you. Your hearts don’t need what a real heart needs.

‘But we’ve proved it!’ said the philosophers. ‘Extensive experiments have found no functional difference between a stone heart and a flesh heart.’

‘Well, I’m sure your science is very clever,’ came the reply, ‘but I’m not so stupid as to be conned into thinking there’s no difference when I can see it with my eyes and hear it with my ears.’

‘But we’ve proved it!’ said the lawyers. ‘The principles which guarantee your rights can in no logical way exclude our own.’

‘Well, I don’t understand your tricksy legal talk,’ came the reply, ‘but obviously different people deserve different things, and we all know the differences between us.’

‘But we’ve proved it!’ said the writers of books. ‘There is no understanding of reality which can coherently account for a true division between stone and flesh.’

‘Well, I don’t know about all that fancy thinking,’ came the reply, ‘but obviously there’s a difference, because I can hear your horrible heart grinding away right now.’

Once, a philosopher lost her patience. ‘I can’t talk about this with you any more!’ she said. ‘You’re not capable of listening to reason!’ She became angrier still, and then she was taken away, because stone-hearted people are very dangerous when they’re angry.

Ten years later, at the next Great Convocation on the Stoneheart Problem, the philosophers and lawyers and writers of books presented their newest and best arguments, even more refined and persuasive than they had been ten years before, and again they were rebuffed. Two philosophers and one lawyer were taken away this time, and there was much discussion in the salons of fashionable society as to whether a Convocation should be risked again. It was, though, scheduled for another ten years’ time.

It was shortly after then that I left that place, and, although ten years have passed and many more since, I cannot say for sure what happened next. I have heard mixed reports. Some have told me that a great Stoneheart thinker presented an argument – if not at the Third Convocation, then maybe at the Fourth or the Fifth – so convincing and so confounding that the whole Hall rose to its feet in applause and ushered in a new era there and then. Some have told me that all the philosophers and lawyers and writers of books gave up their arguments and joined the rebels in their secret caves, waging a bloody war. Some have told me that that war was lost and that the stone-hearted people were once again removed from the world. But, of all the people who have travelled from that place, most have simply told me one thing: that, all these years later, in their Great Convocations the stone-hearted people and the flesh-hearted people are talking still.

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Image by Steve Parker, licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0.

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