Short Story — “Stone Wall”

The Eye-Dancers, at its core, despite the ghost girls and parallel worlds and strange, recurring nightmares, is a coming-of-age story, where the main characters must confront certain aspects of themselves and deal with the inner demons they have always wrestled with.  This coming-of-age theme is one I have written about many times–often in short stories.

One such story, “Stone Wall,” is a very short tale I wrote quite a few years ago about a moment between a father and a son.  The intent, when I wrote it, was that the short interaction presented in the story was one that would leave a lasting mark on the boy . . . something he would always remember.

Looking at the story now, I question some of the choices I made when I wrote it a dozen years ago.  Dissecting their old stories is something all writers do, I suppose.  But I wanted to share “Stone Wall,” in its original form, and I hope you will enjoy it!

stonewall

 

camelshump

 

blackbird

 

vermontmarch

 

“Stone Wall”

Copyright 2014 by Michael S. Fedison

**************

When Dad asked me to go outside with him, I felt a little worried.  He didn’t talk with me much—didn’t have a chance, really.  He tended our herd of Holsteins and worked full-time at the power plant in Montpelier on top of that.  So, usually, when he called for me it was because I had done something wrong and deserved a good talking to.  I wasn’t sure if I had done anything wrong recently.  I couldn’t think of anything, unless calling Jane Hanson a no-good little tramp was off limits.  But that had been over a week ago, and I wasn’t even sure if Dad knew about it.

“Get your jacket, Billy,” Dad said as we walked toward the back door.  “Kinda cool this mornin’.”

I put on my jacket, now a size too small for me, and we walked out onto the back porch.  The air was wet and a thick fog hung over the valley.  In the distance, I could see the summit of Camel’s Hump mountain peaking above the low-lying clouds.  It made me think of a sleeping giant.

“C’mon, Son,” Dad said.  “Follow me.”

We walked into the yard.  It was the middle of March and much of the ground was still covered with snow.  It crunched under our boots.  But the first patches of pale grass were beginning to show up on our hillside, where the cows would be grazing just a few weeks from now.  It looked like a soiled green and white quilt that had been exposed to the Vermont elements for too long.

Dad continued walking, and I followed close behind.  I wasn’t sure where he was taking me or what his purpose was, but I figured I would find out soon enough.  I took a deep breath, inhaling the clean late-winter air.  The air felt sharp in my nostrils, as if it might draw blood if I wasn’t careful.

We crested the hillside and headed for the perimeter of our property.  We were in the high meadow now.  I loved coming here in the summer.  The grasses would sway in the wind and the cows would look so peaceful below me, and the mountains would appear so far away and yet so close.  They would make me think of soaring birds and barefoot rambles in the hollows, of stars that shimmered mysteriously on an oily canvas of October sky.  And sometimes the mountains would cause a longing in me, a longing for something so beautiful it couldn’t be expressed, like the sound of a butterfly’s wings flapping, velvety soft, on a windless summer twilight.  I didn’t understand it all.  I just knew I belonged here, in the hill country.

“See that stone wall there?” Dad said then, jolting me back into the moment at hand.

I nodded.  We were at the very edge of our acreage now.  Just beyond the stone wall was a thick copse of fir trees.

“That wall was built near two-hundred years ago, Son,” Dad continued, “and look at it.  Standin’ firm and true to this day.  Weathered, maybe, but still gets the job done.”

The stone wall actually bounded our property on three sides.  I always thought of it as The Barrier.  I could go anywhere I wanted, within reason, on our forty acres, but never cross over The Barrier.  That would be an offense bad enough to get a spanking.  My brother, Davey, crossed The Barrier without permission once and got tangled up in some barbed wire just beyond it.  He didn’t get a spanking, though.  Dad figured the barbed wire was punishment enough.

The wall wound its way through fields and woods, through flat land and hilly terrain.  It even crossed over the brook that bordered the east edge of our land.  I had never thought much about the wall.  I just knew it was old and, as I have mentioned, not to cross it.

“Your great, great, great grandfather Abraham built this whole wall, all round this forty acres, with his own two hands.  He built it as a dividin’ line.  Set off his property, maybe keep the goats from leavin’—or comin’ in if they were someone else’s.  That’s why folks built these walls in the old days, Son—to divide up the land and keep the animals penned in.  Nowadays, they’re reminders, mostly, relics.  Folks like ‘em, but don’t get much use out of ‘em.  Amazing thing is that they’re still standin’, even after all this time.”

Dad lifted his head, as if listening for something.  I heard nothing out of the ordinary.  But then—

“Hear that?” Dad said.

I did.  Red-winged blackbirds.  I heard their watery call ride the chilly March air.  Their call made me think of the sound swamps might make if they could talk.  It was a wet sound, damp, like the lushness of a springtime shower or the sweet coolness of dewdrops dripping lazily from the grassblades on a fragrant May morning.  It was the sound of spring coming, ever so slowly, ever so shyly, to the Vermont hills.

Dad smiled.  “Winter’s comin’ to an end,” he said.  “The blackbirds are here.  But c’mere, Son.  Let me show you something.”

Dad walked right up to the stone wall and knelt beside it.  He touched the weathered surface of the wall with a work-worn hand.

“Feel that, Son,” he said.

I felt it.  It was cold and old and hard.  It made me think of Dad’s will when he set his mind to something—unyielding, unbendable, stern, and proud.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

“It’s hard,” I said.  “Solid.”

“And old, Son, very, very old.  It’s been here longer than any of the trees we got still standin’ on our farm, I’d say.  It’s seen a lot of hard times, blizzards, winter winds, even a few floods.  But it’s still standin’, true and sturdy.  You know why?  You know what it is makes this wall last so long?”

I shrugged.  “I guess not,” I said.

“Look at the stones,” Dad said.  A gust of wind picked up, and I almost put the hood of my jacket over my head.  But I didn’t.  I wanted to show Dad I could take it like a man.  I was almost thirteen, after all.

I looked at the stones but noticed nothing out of the ordinary.  They looked like stones, granite stones, nothing more.

“Look at the sizes, the shapes,” Dad said when he realized I wasn’t understanding.

There were hundreds of individual stones just in this one small section of the wall.  I examined them.  They were various shades of gray.  I touched several of them.  Some were smooth, some rough and craggy.  Some of the stones were actually colder to the touch than others.  The most striking aspect of all, though, was the shapes and sizes of the stones.  No two were alike.  Some were small, barely larger than a pebble.  Others were the size of a pumpkin, big and round and cumbersome.

“They’re all different,” I said.  “No two are the same.  Some of ‘em are pretty close, but no two are the same.”

Dad nodded.  “Ayuh,” he said.  “They’re all different.  Different but not different.  That’s why this wall’s been standin’ here for so long, Son, and why it’s gonna keep on standin’ long after I’m gone.”

Dad got up from his crouch and sat on the stone wall.  He motioned for me to sit beside him.  I nearly let out a squeal when I did.  The coldness of the wall went right through my jeans.  But I just sat there, my backside freezing, hoping I would get used to it soon.

“Y’know what I mean, Son, what I’m tryin’ to say?” Dad asked me.  Another gust of wind came up, but Dad appeared not to notice.  He looked out over our meadow.

I shook my head.  “Not really, Dad.”

“They’re different—the stones—but not different.  They’re all different shapes and sizes, but they’re all stones, see?  They’re all sturdy and hard.  They ain’t gonna sway when the wind blows, when the rains come, when the storms come crashin’ through.  They’re gonna hold steady, lodged in this hard wall.  They’re different, but they’re the same, too.

“Sometimes, different is good,” Dad continued.  “Sometimes, we get stodgy, too set in our ways.  I know I have.  Take the Bakers up the road.  They’ve been here since before you were born, but time was, they moved here from California, and some of the folks didn’t take too kind to ‘em at first.  And when Harry Baker suggested we take down the church steeple and repair it, we almost lynched ‘im.  But he was right.  That steeple was old, dangerous.  It needed fixin’.  It took an outsider to see that, Son—someone from away, someone different.  The Bakers’ve helped this town out in lotsa ways since then, too.  Sometimes, different is good, Billy.”

“But they’re the same, too,” I said.  “They’re all stones.  All rocks.”

Dad nodded.  The wind came up, stiff and strong again, rustling the boughs of the fir trees, sounding lonesome, longing for something I could not see, hoping for something I could not touch.

“Lots of folks in the world,” Dad said,  “and lots of notions.  A man, he needs to be like a sturdy stone wall.  Listen to ideas that help him out, learn new things, new ways of lookin’ at things.  Be open-minded, or else he’ll drive out the Harry Bakers of the world, and he’ll be worse off because of it.  But a man needs to know when different ain’t good.  He needs to be able to separate the good grain from the bad, the wormy fruit from the good fruit.  That’s what old Herb Preet has to do up on Newkirk Hill Road in his apple orchard.  Separate the good from the wormy.  You gettin’ me, Son?”

“I dunno,” I said.  “Sometimes, different things are good, and sometimes they’re bad?”

“Ayuh,” Dad said and for some reason, I thought to myself, Dad isn’t young anymore.  He won’t live forever.  “You got to let yerself grow, hear people out, take in the big stones with the little ones, you might say.  That’ll build you up, make you a better man.  But you need to be stony, too, solid.  Like this wall here.  Ain’t nothin’ here but good hard granite.  No wood.  No nails.  Wood rots.  Nails rust.  You felt the wall, Son.  It’s tough.  Don’t break easy.  Doesn’t sway and bend in the wind, going here and there.  That’s the way a good man needs to be.  You believe in what’s right, and you don’t bend.  Don’t let some smooth talker get you to do somethin’ that you know ain’t right.  Stand up for yourself.  And when the storms come, they won’t blow you down.  Different, but the same.  Just like this wall.  You understand now, Billy?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think so.”

Dad nodded.  It was quick and subtle.  It seemed he wanted to say something else, but he didn’t.  He sat there for awhile, his face turned to the wind.  Perhaps he was thinking of red-winged blackbirds and crocus flowers and dandelions.  Perhaps he was thinking of me, of the challenges I would face as I grew older, of the choices I would make.  I could have asked him what he was thinking.  I could have.  But I didn’t.

Dad stood up.  I did, too.

“C’mon, Son,” he said softly.  “Your mom’ll have lunch ready soon, I guess.”

We walked back into the high meadow, away from the wall.  We didn’t speak, but the silence was warm and comforting, like an old mitten that fits snugly on your hand and protects you from the cold.  Dad walked briskly, and I had to hurry to keep up with him.  I wished he would slow down, linger, to extend the moment and not have it be so fleeting.

We headed down our hillside, our home coming into view.  Smoke rose up from our chimney, billowing into the chilly air like ungraspable tendrils.  I loved the sight of it and again wished Dad would slow his pace.  But he kept on going and soon we were back inside, and I was taking off my jacket, and we would be eating lunch, and Dad would have chores to do, and so would I.

Dad never spoke to me of stone walls again.

*****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

%d bloggers like this: