The Stone Mason
by Scott Cafarella
The thaw of spring seemed to come overnight. The long cold winter that plagued upstate New York was finally gone. The air had a vibrant energy that flowed through all those who had been hibernating. The mason packed up his old Ford pickup. The sound of the tools clanking in the bed of the truck brought a smile to his face. Winters had grown very hard since his wife’s passing four years earlier. Now in his mid-sixties and his kids on the other side of the country, all he had was the work season.
The sun had barely set as he made his way down the road surrounded by grey muddied fields with random hints of green. His body ached from the long layoff. Years of hard work had also caught up with him. Yet the first warmth of the season seemed to grease his bones. His leather-like hands seemed looser. His ailing hip more flexible. His broken heart beating just a bit faster.
He pulled into the estate, its long driveway passing two large ponds lined with stone walls that snaked around the whole property. A few guest cottages were in the distance, their veneer matching the walls. The estate sat up on top of the hill like the rightful king. A modest stone castle with chimneys on each corner peeking into the sky like crowns.
Hedges and trees uniformly shaped the yard with a large gazebo and picnic area. A third pond sat behind it with a newly built dock and boat house. A separate garage larger than most homes sat detached to the side with a long spiral staircase that led to what seemed a large apartment on top. An old pickup sat in front of the greenhouse one hundred yards from the estate. A groundskeeper was hammering away, repairing a door.
The mason drove another three hundred yards past the estate to the section of the wall that needed repair. It lined the edge of the forest which was barren, allowing views deep into its core. He drove the pickup as far as he could off the gravel road before the mud was just too much.
He slowly walked over to the wall. The fifty-foot section had toppled over leaving only a pile of stones in mortar. It seemed odd that the wall had collapsed, considering that the rest of the wall was unscathed throughout the property,.
It would be a lot of work by himself, but he didn’t mind. He loved the scenery and seclusion and he didn’t need to make a killing moneywise. He was there for the craft, the craft that had been his friend for almost fifty years.
He began to pull the loose stones to the side, his lump hammer breaking the larger pieces still mortared together. The sun was fully out, and he could almost hear the wild around him coming to life, as if the trees where letting out a breath that they had held for a good five months.
He worked with a hurried passion, as if building stamina with every stone he tossed. In the distance, the groundskeeper slowly drove by and tipped his large straw hat. The mason waved and then quickly went back to his mission.
His mind was still on his Julia. She loved the spring partly because it finally got him out of the house but also because it offered possibilities for the coming summer. You don’t realize at the time how special those summers are, flying by faster than a waking thought till they are just memories of another life. A life when your bones didn’t ache, a life when the love of your life was more than just a scent from a familiar breeze in a rare moment on an even more rare perfect day. A life when your children were young, and you were still able to shield them from all the heaviness that life would bring. A life when you walked tall, and your mind was sharp, and tomorrow was just another challenge. Yet on those rare days with that rare breeze, he could almost hear the children laugh, see his wife’s smile and, just for a moment, he could stand tall and remember feeling like a king.
A well-earned sweat began to trickle through his shirt. His stamina was nowhere near what it needed to be. It would slowly build throughout the season, never coming close to the days of his prime, but what he lacked in that category he partially made up for with knowledge and tricks to cut down on wasted moves. Every swing of the hammer or swipe of the trowel was carefully planned and executed. He would roll the heavier stones to the side instead of trying to lift them.
The fear that any stone could be the one to finally break him put an end to his last grip on an old life. His hands like leather, tattooed with scars and wrinkles, the rest of his body not much different than the stone wall in front of him. Old bones held together by cracking mortar joints, ready to collapse with no mason to put them back together.
By lunchtime, the sun was smiling fully with a steady spring breeze. He sat on a large fallen stone and took bites out of his cheese sandwich. The estate remained quiet, and he looked down upon the pond, where ripples in the water slightly shattered the mirror to the sky.
The first day was always the most nostalgic: you noticed things that would be washed away as each day went by and you fell into the mode of just getting through. But on that first one you are always reminded of why you come back year after year. You are reminded of that special connection that you share with your oldest friend.
As he wrapped up the remainder of his lunch, a few bites of his sandwich that he would finish on the way home, the caretaker once again drove by. This time the old pickup was moving more slowly, and the driver’s large straw hat was facing directly forward. No glance or wave in the mason’s direction. Instead of turning with the dirt road, which wound to the left and down a hill, the truck continued straight toward the tree line that guarded the forest.
The mason, now intrigued, continued to watch as the truck came to a stop. Its front end was only a few feet from the tree. The caretaker slowly got out and stood staring straight ahead as if mesmerized. Then slowly walked forward, disappearing into the woods as if swallowed. The mason almost expected to hear a scream, but there was only silence, the same eerie quiet that had been there all morning, as if this small part of the world was holding its breath.
He watched for a few minutes longer, hoping the caretaker would reappear out of the woods, but he knew deep inside by the way the man had entered that it was a one-way trip. The mason shook his head and laughed at himself for thinking such things. When did he develop such a crazy imagination? He let out another chuckle, picked up his hammer and walked back to the wall. Yet something felt a bit off as if he was being watched, not by someone or something but instead by all things. Every branch or log or even the stones before him, even the inviting breeze seemed to have a pair of eyes and maybe even a slight whisper.
He continued to take down the section of wall, moving faster than he had in years. His hammer banging away at the crumbling mortar, the stones popping off with ease. Even the heavier ones didn’t give him any trouble when he piled them off to the side.
He quickly glanced to where the caretaker had entered the woods. Nothing had changed. The old pickup still sat idle with the driver’s door open. The truck looked as if it had been there for a very long time, like so many abandoned hunks of metal stranded in junkyards. A part of him wanted to go and explore, but he was in such a rhythm with the job at hand. The only sound was his grunts, the only movement was the shadow from his swinging hammer.
The stones were coming off more easily with every swing. Almost as if he was reversing time, when he was a young bull with the desire to succeed as his backbone. He was close to the last few rows of stone. A sadness crept in at the thought he would finish soon.
He came to a quick stop: the final stone, at the bottom, was unlike any he had ever seen. It was four feet long with an impossibly smooth surface. Not a scratch or bump or crevice. It seemed to sparkle in the sun, revealing so many colors that it might as well be all of them. A kind of energy seemed to come out of it, drawing him to it, relaxing him to an almost sleepy state. He desperately wanted to touch it. All other things had gone away. He no longer even thought of the caretaker, and he slowly took a step toward the magnificent stone.
The energy was growing, and the colors kept changing to a point where he felt he was floating in space, completely focused on the alien particle that was exploding blends too bright for most eyes but not for his.
He reached out to touch it, as if trying to touch the sun or moon or an aging past. Yet somehow his hand landed on the stone releasing into his fingertips all the energy that had surrounded him these last few moments. Its power was magnificent and soothing, and he closed his eyes and floated to wherever it wanted to take him in full acceptance and submission. It was like a portal into the unknown and yet familiar. Sensations so unbelievable but yet somewhere, sometime previously witnessed, like an exaggerated combination of all that he had ever felt.
Then, suddenly, his eyes opened, and once again he was standing in front of the stone wall. The sun had returned, and the magical stone was gone, but the place where it had lain now marked the beginning of a stone path that led into the forest. The stones were smaller versions of the one he had just admired. Their colors were slightly dulled but still sparkling in the sunlight that bounced off them from the opening in the forest above.
There was no fear or hesitation as he took the first step, only comfort and belonging. As soon as his foot landed on the first stone, the landscape changed. The forest was gone and replaced by a familiar street, where the homes and yards brought a warm memory from his childhood. Before him stood the home where he had grown up, which he had watched his grandfather build brick by brick. Where he had first inhaled the smell of the mortar, a mix of sweet and sour and dusty clay and knowing he always wanted to be around it. His grandfather’s full head of peppered hair and rare quick smile that only he could see. The way he danced on the wall as if on a stage to the orchestra of the trowel tapping and slicing bricks.
As he walked farther, he came to his first job. A home on a mountain working next to his grandfather feeding him stones as he placed each one as it was meant to be. His grandfather was older but still strong, His body like a piece of leather, nicks and tears but never broken; very few words but yet that rare smile.
A little farther, he saw his first job on his own. A stone mailbox that he created from a stone wall that the owners told him had been built during the Civil War. He remembered feeling proud of what he had created. He knew that every stone he pulled had its own history, which in turn helped create his future.
Then he came to the job he had worked on when his son was born. An old church in the middle of a new city. Each stone had been a piece of art as if placed by magicians. He took great pride in being able to repair some small sections where the stones had succumbed to the succession of winters. He became aware of a sense of purpose: he had brought a new life into the world and was now, in a manner of speaking, helping restore an old one.
Then back to his own home, which he had built brick by brick, stone by stone, like his grandfather before him. In that time, his daughter would be born and all the memories of his kids’ growing would be stored inside the walls of his greatest work of art. A house truly alive with all the souls he had ever loved. The house seems to gaze back at him as if a final farewell.
He walked farther, thinking of his children and how well they had done. They had their own families and memories and would eventually see their own road paved before them, full of the marks they had left.
There was one more sight to see. She was standing only a short distance away. She was as beautiful as he remembered and had the same smile that had thawed him throughout their life together. She had always been able to shine on the darkest days but never as much as then, where he would follow her light on his new road. Her hand reached for his, and he took it and let out a breath he had been holding for so long.
“Welcome home,” she said, and they began to walk together. He had forgotten how much her touch warmed him, took away any anxiety that weighed him down. He was surprised he had lasted this long without it.
Up ahead, he could see the road coming to an end. People were gathered, and one of them stood out with a large straw hat. They were all awaiting something, as was he. He squeezed his wife’s hand a little harder and they picked up the pace. Once again, he felt like a king.
* * *
The stone mason’s son and daughter were packing up the last few things of their father’s in the house. They walked out to the garage, and both started to cry when they saw all his tools still hanging on the walls. He had passed away in his sleep in the middle of winter. They wished he had been able to see one more spring, to pack his tools into the old truck one more time. They knew how much he loved that. Their sadness gradually turned to consolation; deep down they both knew he was with Mom.
This story is dedicated to my grandfather, who passed his trade on to me. I know he is in a good place with my grandmother, and I’ll bet he is still dancing on those walls.
Copyright © 2019 by Scott Cafarella