Original fiction by
Everything he’d loved he had to sacrifice until he had nothing but stones.
R ound and smooth, the size and heft of a bowling ball, the stone lay on the dew-moistened grass, dislodged from its setting like a loose pearl from a ring. Abraham Elder planted his feet and bowed slowly toward the ground as if performing a reverential rite, and gripped the rock with both hands. Lifting it, he felt the pull through his arms and shoulders and was relieved when the truant was back in place on the wall.
Not that long ago, he wouldn’t have felt a strain at all, but at eighty-six years of age, he was aware of a new and entirely unwelcome weakness and a tingling sensation sometimes at night in his right arm and hand. Had it been his left, he would have wondered about the remaining strength of his heart—not that he would have dialed 9-1-1, or so he thought. He had lived long enough and well enough under the circumstances to depart this earth with a clear conscience. If the Almighty took umbrage over anything he’d done, he had far more serious complaints to lodge in return.
Abraham wiggled the stone, feeling how easily it rocked, and looked around for a slice of shale to wedge under it. That was the trick: the rounded stones looked the nicest, but the odd shaped ones with the hard angles fit more securely once he found the right place for them. Over the past fifty years, Abraham had rebuilt, maintained, and added onto the stone walls, keeping strong boundaries on two sides of his property; between his four acres and the parcel to the east where an A-frame house stood, and the lot to the south now grown wild with sumac and bramble bushes that nearly covered an abandoned trailer.
The stone walls dated back to the early 1800s, Abraham surmised from the property records that traced his four acres to the giant parcel acquired by George Scriba from the Oneida Indians. The Town of Scriba outside of Oswego, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario, was named for the man who’d been a New York City merchant and an officer in the militia during the American Revolution. As the land was divided, a use was finally found for the bounty of stones left behind by the glaciers. Trenches were dug three feet down and filled with stones to form a foundation on which to stack the walls some four feet high.
By the time Abraham bought his property in 1964, the stone walls had been reduced to mounds of rubble with large gaps in between. A portion of a third wall on the west side of his property had all but disappeared, although the ground still heaved up remnants of it. In the center of this antiquity stood the modest house he’d built, doing most of the carpentry work himself. When his father, Jeremiah Elder, had come to see the place, he noticed only ruins of the stone walls, considering them eyesores as if they were heaps of trash and rusted metal. After that, Abraham set about rebuilding them by hand, section by section. He dug, hauled, and stacked stones, but with no joy in his labor—only a desire to silence the admonishments he’d heard all his youth, that laziness was a sin and sloth an abomination.
Pulling a red bandanna handkerchief from his back pocket to mop his face, Abraham heard Dorothea’s echo, telling him to sit down, have some water, and leave those doggone rocks alone. But Dorothea wasn’t there to fuss over him and hadn’t been for the past eighteen years. That he’d live nearly two decades after her death was a constant source of surprise. When she died four months after being diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at the age of sixty-eight, he’d been seventy, and figured that within a few years he’d follow her. But here he was, his body stooping steadily toward the ground that one day would open up and swallow him.
He got along all right: still drove, but only in the daytime and just the five miles into town. He had his faculties and most of his teeth. A lifetime of hard work had hardened his muscles and his heart. Without meaning to, he had outlived everyone. Not that he had cause to be lonely, Abraham reminded himself. People stopped by pretty regularly, and he went with his friend, Chet, to the senior center to play cards a couple of times a week. Chet was ten years younger and could still see the road at night.
Looking down the wall, Abraham spied a dot of yellow. Even though he’d sprayed the whole length of it with Roundup, the dandelions didn’t stay away for long. Reaching greedily for the intruder, feeling the jagged edges of its leaves, Abraham tugged; the root snapped off at ground level.
“Need a hand?”
Straightening slowly, Abraham wondered for a second if he’d imagined the voice. The man standing on the other side of wall seemed real enough: dark hair, deep-set eyes, stubble around his face like ten days of whisker growth.
“Keep calm and carry on.” Abraham read the faded yellow words on the man’s washed-out blue t-shirt.
“What? Oh, this.” The man plucked at his shirt. “So what are you doing?”
“Taking care of my wall.”
“Nice wall. I think we share it.”
The hell we do, Abraham thought and nearly said so, except the young man reached across, his hand outstretched. “I’m your new neighbor, Jonathan Burgess. My wife and I bought the house next door.”
Abraham studied the long fingers, broad palm, and the dark hair along the tanned arm, then extended his own hand for a shake. “Heard the place sold.” The couple who’d built the A-frame with the fieldstone chimney had been quiet and kept to themselves. Abraham hadn’t even known the house was vacant until Verna, the mail carrier, had told him that the couple divorced after twenty-two years. The wife had been the one with the wandering eye. Now here was this new neighbor, reaching over the wall like he was running for mayor.
“You from around here?” Abraham asked.
“Long Island. I just took a job at the college—English department.”
The college, part of the state university system, was clear on the other side of town—ten miles at least—which wouldn’t seem far now, but come winter would take forever.
Abraham studied the man’s face, figuring him to be thirty—maybe thirty-five—but definitely south of forty. As he did with every young man, Abraham searched for a resemblance to his son, but there was little, other than having dark hair and similar names. Of course, Johnny would have been fifty-two, but in Abraham’s memory, Johnny was forever twenty years old.
When he tuned in again, Jonathan was saying something about his wife who was a writer of some sort. Abraham grunted a little and nodded.
“You build this wall?” Jonathan ran his palm along one of the stones.
“This wall has been here for two hundred years. I just keep it up.”
Jonathan’s eyebrows shot up to two shaggy arcs halfway across his forehead. “Impressive. These are just stacked, right? No mortar—”
“Mortar!” Abraham spat out the word. “Nothing here but stones and sweat.”
“What about those round places—those turret things.”
Turrets. It was a good word. About four feet across, round like a wishing well, but filled in and flat on top, they jutted out of the wall. There were four of them—one on the east wall, two along the south, and one in the corner where they intersected.
“What are they for?” Jonathan asked.
Abraham cupped his hand to his ear, even though he’d heard the question perfectly.
“What do they do?” Jonathan repeated.
“Do? They’re stones! Don’t do a damn thing. Not like they light up or play music.”
Jonathan chuckled. “I’d be happy to help you with the wall.”
“Don’t need much tending.” Abraham waved as he resumed his walk along the wall, looking for anything out of place.
Two days later, mid-morning on a Monday, Verna tapped on the back door and opened it. She came by almost every day, whether she had mail for Abraham or not. Sometimes she gave him the undeliverable junk mail or duplicate catalogs sent to the same person. Today she had Lands’ End, Pottery Barn, and one called Priscilla’s Treasures.
“You think I need any of this junk? Don’t know why you give me these things.” Abraham put the newest catalogs on top of the stack on the kitchen table next to last night’s dishes that he hadn’t gotten around to putting in the sink to be washed.
“They’ll just go to waste,” Verna said, lowering her considerable self into one of the chrome chairs with a cracked vinyl seat cover that had once been yellow, but now was darkened by dirt. “You oughta get somebody in here to clean once in a while.”
“It aint’t dirty. I clean just fine.” Abraham took a mug from the cupboard that said North Country Savings on the side. “You want coffee?”
“You need one of them new machines. Pop these little things and out comes a cup of coffee.”
“Well, I put a spoonful of instant in this mug and out comes a cup of coffee.” Abraham turned the burner on to heat water. “Met the neighbors—or at least one of ‘em. Name’s Jonathan something. Works out at the college. His wife’s some kinda writer.”
“Poet.” Verna scratched at a red-brown dried spot on the Formica tabletop.
“Poet? That ain’t a job.”
“Well, that’s what I heard.” Verna brushed her hands against each other.
Abraham turned off the burner and filled his cup with boiling water. “Got enough for two if you want.”
“Nah, Monday’s always a heavy delivery day. See you tomorrow.”
Abraham sat alone at the table, looking around the kitchen. The place was a mess, he had to admit, a pile of dishes on the counter and in the sink, and now a new one started on the table. Onion skins skittered across the floor on the breeze from the open window.
When Dorothea was alive, he’d come home to the most wonderful smells—the caramel scent of brown sugar, melted butter rubbed on the tops of freshly baked loaves of bread, a hearty beef stew simmering on the back burner. Abraham’s mouth watered, and a rumble in his stomach collided with a pang in his heart.
The sound of the doorbell made him frown. Anybody who knew him came to the back door and usually let themselves in. A ringing bell meant strangers who wanted something. Then came the knock. “Hold your horses!” he yelled. “Don’t break down the door.”
Jonathan stood on the front step; beside him was a woman with strawberry blond hair. She held something wrapped in foil.
“Hope we’re not disturbing you,” Jonathan said. “I wanted you to meet Miranda, my wife.”
She handed over the foil-wrapped package. “I made a loaf of carrot bread with pineapple and raisins. But no nuts—I wasn’t sure if you were allergic.”
“That’s nice.” Abraham kept his hand on the door. “I was in the middle of somethin’. Mail just came.”
“We didn’t mean to disturb you. Just wanted to say hello.” Miranda smiled.
Abraham could picture Dorothea inviting them over for dinner, making a roast with all the trimmings, giving them cuttings from her garden. “Thanks for the bread. I should be making you something ‘cause you moved in, but you wouldn’t like my cooking.”
“There is something I would like,” Miranda began. “I’d love to take a closer look at your wall. I’m so intrigued by those rounded places. They remind me of the stone stacks I saw in Scandinavia, although yours are larger and more refined.”
Abraham took a step back and inched the door closed. “Sometime—maybe when I’m working out there.”
Over the next few days, Abraham made a point to go outside early in the morning before the couple next door was up and about, or else he stayed inside until he saw their cars leave. He wasn’t intending to be rude, just setting boundaries. The next week, Abraham noticed, one car was gone all the time, while the other wasn’t moved. The A-frame showed no signs of activity. Finally, after three days he asked Verna, who told him their mail hadn’t been collected for a couple of days so she was holding it until they got back.
“From where?” Abraham asked.
“From wherever they went because they sure aren’t here!” Verna sipped the cup of instant she’d reluctantly accepted and made a face. “You know there’s a whole world beyond your stone wall.”
Abraham knew better than to go out in the heat of the day, but he couldn’t stay inside any longer. Running his hand along the sun-warmed stones, he felt the grainy roughness of the granite and the smoothness of the slate. He followed the surveyor-straight wall to the first of the rounded places—layer upon layer of rocks that rose from the ground waist high. Turrets, Jonathan had called them. But these rounded platforms weren’t for watching over the land, detecting friends from foes as they approached. From these places, he could only look inward, where loss and bitterness ran in deep veins.
Unlike the patriarch of the Old Testament with his descendents more numerous than the stars, Abraham Elder had few lights to outlast him. When he died, his immediate family would cease to exist, with the exception of two grandchildren who had been absorbed so thoroughly into their stepmother’s family as to erase the Elders. Not that he blamed them; better to attach themselves to the living than the dead.
Altars. After all these years, Abraham finally put a word on what he’d built. Everything he’d loved he had to sacrifice until he had nothing but stones. If they cut him open right now, Abraham thought, cracking and spreading his ribs, they wouldn’t find a heart inside—only granite. A drop splattered one of the stones and then another fell. Abraham covered his face with his hands and wept.
Abraham stayed inside the next day and barely said two words to Verna until she got the hint and left. The next day, as he stood at the back door, Abraham noticed the second car was in the driveway next door. An hour later, Verna came with the mail, but didn’t make a move toward the kitchen table. Figuring she was still sore from being snubbed, Abraham tried to coax her to come in for coffee, but Verna said she was too busy. “Your neighbors are back,” she said.
“Yeah, I saw the car.”
“When I dropped off their mail, they were so grateful. Didn’t have time to put a stop on it before they had to leave.” Verna fanned a couple of catalogs in her hands as if undecided about giving them to Abraham. “If you speak to your neighbors—which I highly doubt you will since you don’t like anybody these days—make sure you offer condolences.”
Abraham jerked his head back at the last word. “Whattaya mean?”
“Her sister died—thirty-one years old. Brain cancer.” Verna mimed a shudder. “Miranda spent every weekend with her sister, except the one to move here. That’s when the sister took a turn. Three days in hospice and she was gone.”
Abraham was winded by the time he reached the end of their driveway and had to sit down on a lawn chair where Jonathan found him. “Heard about your sister,” Abraham said.
“Sister-in-law,” Jonathan corrected. “Miranda’s sister, Gwendolyn.”
Miranda stepped out of the back door, her shoulders hunched as she pulled a sweater tighter around her body.
“Awful to lose somebody you love, especially so young.” Abraham shook his head. “I know about that.” He got up slowly from the lawn chair. “Come see my wall tonight, if you want.” He shuffled away without saying good-bye.
Abraham was sitting outside when they came by a little after seven. Miranda wore a sundress, and Jonathan a short-sleeved print shirt with a collar. Abraham boosted himself out of his chair and took a tentative step on a knee that felt a little off and then a better second step. Miranda steadied him and didn’t let go when they started walking.
“When I built the house, them stone walls was all knocked down. Stones all over the place. Took me some time to get started on it, what with working and the kids. I wanted to put things to rights around here. My father was like that, everything in its place.” His words didn’t seem to be coming out the way he wanted, so Abraham didn’t say any more until they reached the corner where the east wall met the south one. Here was the first of the stone circles.
Abraham focused his thoughts. “My son Johnny had this little motorcycle—noisy damn thing, but he loved it. Ran all over these roads. Johnny never liked wearing a helmet, though. Drunk driver hit him. He was 20.”
Leaning over, Abraham planted both hands along the uppermost tier of stones. “Why? I asked that a million times. Why Johnny? Why not somebody else? The damn driver walked away. Minister tried to tell me Johnny was in a better place, and I almost slugged him—probably would have, too, if Dorothea hadn’t been there. As hard as it was for me to lose Johnny, it was harder to see my wife grieve her boy. One day, I just started stacking stones in a circle, and this is what I made.”
Miranda walked the perimeter of the circle while Jonathan crouched to examine the lowest ring of rocks. “Had to bring stones up from the other end of the property,” Abraham explained. “And I had plenty left over.” He led them to the next circle, about three feet across, topped by stones with rose-colored veins.
“Then Karen got married and had a baby—a little girl. She lived three days. Bought them pink stones special for my baby granddaughter.”
Miranda wiped her eyes and Jonathan put his arm around her waist.
“You want to keep going?” Abraham asked.
“Absolutely,” they said nearly in unison.
The third circle was the biggest, about six feet across with fieldstone at the base and black-and-white speckled marble for the top. “Dorothea died at sixty-eight. Breast cancer. I was seventy and thought I’d be right along behind her. But here I am, eighteen years later. Losing her was like cuttin’ myself in two.”
Abraham didn’t advance down the wall. Instead he pointed to the fourth circle. “Pretty near ten years ago my daughter, Karen, died. Breast cancer, just like her mother. So here’s my family and I’m the one who’s left.”
The wind tossed their hair and ruffled the grass. A robin pecked at a bug on the ground. A cloud cast a shadow at their feet.
“It’s art, really. You’ve turned your grief into beauty,” Miranda said.
“Just made them circles to keep from losin’ my mind. That’s what you gotta do—find something to keep yourself busy. Build something, make something. Don’t let the grief get to you.”
Miranda’s hand landed softly on his shoulder. “I started a poem about Gwen, but I thought it was too soon. I feel so raw inside.”
“Like somebody went at you with a hacksaw.” Abraham nodded. “I know that feeling.”
The walk back to Abraham’s house took longer because suddenly he felt very tired. Jonathan went back to their house for a pitcher of lemonade, while Miranda sat with Abraham. “Thank you,” she said. “It meant so much to hear the story of your wall.”
“Maybe you think I’m a selfish old fool, telling you all my troubles.”
“No, I think you’re very kind to share something so personal. It gives me courage that I’ll get through this.”
It was dark when the couple left with a promise to have Abraham over for dinner soon. The old man felt so peaceful when he went to bed, that had he died he would have welcomed it. In the morning, he awakened to full light, not sure for a moment where he was, but the familiarity of the old bedroom with its bulky dresser and saggy Priscilla curtains at the windows dragged him back to his old life. Abraham knew exactly what he had to do.
A little after eight he set off with two pairs of work gloves, both thick with leather palms and suede cuffs. He went to the back door because he wasn’t company and rapped on the frame. Jonathan appeared a minute later, wearing floppy pajama pants and a t-shirt, his hair mussed from sleep. “What’s going on? You okay?”
Abraham thrust a pair of gloves at him. “Come on. We got work to do, and you’re going to have to do all the liftin’.”
Using a spade, they cut the sod in a circle and then turned over the dirt. With Abraham directing, they scrounged enough stones to ring the perimeter of the flower garden Miranda could plant in her sister’s memory.
Early the next morning, Abraham headed outside to walk along the wall, but this time he looked beyond the orderliness interrupted now with new gaps where he and Jonathan had taken stones. Instead, he saw the continuum—his life laid out in stones; loss after loss, but also strength and resilience, the tenacity to stack stone upon stone with mud or mortar. Up close now, he spied a blush of pink. Bending down he recognized it as a wild morning glory blossom, dangling from a vine that nabbed crevices between the rocks to pull itself higher. The plant was a pest and would soon weave a tangled mess, but instead of plucking it from the ground, Abraham left it alone. He’d spent fifty years tending to the dead and inanimate; now it was time to let the living grow and bloom.