drystoneTHROUGH the window he sees trees and fields and small bushes, but he longs to find something green. A vast blue sky with cuckoo-spit clouds races above his cottage yet the roof of his world is thick and dark with fog. It suffocates the land and bleeds it of life and colour. Rapier winds tear at stunted trees and the wildflower meadows are raked black with muddy welts. His mountainside is pounded relentlessly by hail and rain; all that’s left of the smile it once wore lies scattered in the broken teeth of rocks. The smile it once wore for him and Carys.

The cottage’s packed slate walls are the only trace of man at the head of the valley. Scree and loose granite weep from the mountain where sheep hunker in the barrelling wind. Daniel stands in the cottage doorway and surveys this terrain, a night riven with terrifying visions haunting his eyes. Every scrubby bush and wind-sacked tree is familiar and alien. Rags of snow fill rocky hollows where spindrift blurs the mountain’s serrated peaks. A dry-stone wall strides off from an overgrown garden and into the wilderness, where soon its purpose falters against the battered stony ground and it becomes a tract of rubble struggling to find shape among the boulders. He reaches out and touches the wall, its surfaces as rough as his own hands. His ancestors built it as a property boundary, and maintained it, as did he until Carys disappeared. Years spent searching for her among the splintered rockfaces of Kashmir meant the land was left untended, so that when he returned the wall had succumbed to weather and time. He could have restored it easily enough but his travails in the Karakorum had done more than lash grit-pocked scars across his face – they had burnished his heart with a loathing for harsh lands, of untamed landscapes, like the one in which he lived and once shared with Carys, and like the one that had taken her from him. With Carys still missing his world was daubed with despair, haunted by mists and endlessly sodden. Rebuilding the wall would mean working the ground he found so rotten.

A pelt of cloud covers the mountain but there’s no sign of rain. He takes two old batter-frames from the outhouse and studies them. They are large enough for a double wall about five feet high. He carries them and some twine to a broken section of wall beyond the garden, and places a frame at each end of the collapse. He ties twine between the two and assesses how many stones will be needed to rebuild the section. The fallen stones are strewn around his feet, sucked down into the earth with mud and moss. He pulls one from the ground and places it on the wall, moves it until it sits. He takes a second, and a third, keeping them within the straight lines of the twine. He assesses after six stones. Another six follow, and six more after that. From a tree’s wasted branches two crows laugh at him. He turns and throws a stone at them, missing the tree and the crows by some distance. Shredded wings beat the air above his head, like the flap of wind-torn fabric, and he sees the shadowy Kashmiri tribesman of his recurring nightmare, Carys’s hair bunched in his fist, her severed head swinging. The rutted earth seizes the life from his legs and he falls back against the wall, head in his hands, sobbing.

He works until the sun crashes into the jagged crest of the world and splinters shadow into the valley below. In the living room he lights a log fire and turns on the radio. Through the window Ursa Major hangs low in the sky as the Milky Way wheels the world away through time.

At dawn the wind tramples trees and rain comes in horizontal sheets. He works with his back to the weather. Skeins of mud run up his legs and cross his chest, carved by water channelled in crumpled waterproofs. Clods of earth cling to his backside and his boots are gummy stumps of filth. By the end of the second day he has built 24 feet of wall three feet high. His hair and feet are soaked, his body numb with cold and fear of sleep that night. He rubs at the start of a blister at the base of the thumb on his right hand, and presses a hand into the small of his back, straightens, and winces. In front of the fire he uses pencil and paper to work out how long it will take him to rebuild the entire wall, from the house to the top of the mountain ridge.

Later he stands in the doorway and listens to the steady drip from a broken drainpipe. He looks up to where the universe unfurls and witnesses the tail-end flash of a meteor’s life. He finds Ursa Major, the stars Merak and Dubhe, and traces a straight line to the North Star, Polaris. He spent hours with Carys looking through her telescope, at the sky he paid little attention to as a farmer’s boy. The land demanded such dedication from him, tending livestock and horses and a small vegetable garden. He saw little beauty in any of it. Yet Carys taught him to see the land and the sky with different eyes, a new vision blessed with life with possibility.

“The Plough is an asterism, not a constellation,” she told him once. “It’s only a part of Ursa Major. It has so many names. In America they call it the Big Dipper. Its Latin name is the Great Bear. In Arabic culture it’s three pairs of stars – the first, second and third leaps.” She regaled him with the myths that gave the constellations their names, stories passed down to her by her father that inspired her interest in the stars. In Daniel it prompted a curiosity in the legends he’d heard about the mountain but previously had no time for. He enjoyed telling her that a giant skilled in astronomy and poetry lived there. Locals regarded the mountain as the Great Seat of Poetry, believing that if you spent a night on the summit you woke either mad or a poet. Carys, of course, had to try it out, and her failure to write any verse the following day led them to conclude she must be insane.

“There are at least 50 galaxies in Ursa Major,” she told him one night as they stood by the stone wall. Her head rested on his shoulder and he could see the green in her eyes, even in the low light that crept through the front door and into the garden. “The nearest star is at least eight light years away. The bright star…Alkaid…on the left there…that’s 700 times brighter than our sun.”

It was this vastness and mystery of the night sky’s seemingly insignificant detail that gave Daniel a new perspective on a world he thought he knew. He put his hand above his head and masked the constellation with his fingers. He wondered how such immense objects and unfathomable distances could fit into a man’s fist. On their many walks Carys would stop to admire the smallest flowers, tiny mosses growing between rocks, rosettes of lichen on every surface, and in this detail he imagined the sky again. Vast and mysterious, yet small enough to be hidden by a finger. He found books and learned the names of plants that grew in the darkest, wettest corners of the mountain. He identified tiny flowers so easily missed and trampled underfoot. He studied the myriad colours and intricate structures of lichen where once it was just the weathering of rock and readily ignored. Thanks to Carys, the mountain had grown a smile. The green of trees and grass and moss that during the long, lonely years had faded to endless grey became a vivid, living thing. She had brought a burning torch of discovery, laughter and companionship into his life.

But with the torch came fire, and the fire in Carys needed other horizons on which to burn. She travelled the world on many adventures, but he always waited and she always returned. She went to Kashmir in search of the snow leopard. She dreamed of seeing one in the wild, she told him, and then promised it would be her final voyage. Those words played over and over in his head.

Polaris dips low towards the daggered ridge and a crescent moon frowns above the house. Daniel tucks the memories of Carys away but then turns to look at the window in which her telescope still stands. It stares skyward promising discovery and wonder, revealing nothing but painful reminders of a great friend lost.

Early the next day he marks another 12 feet with the batter-frames, and with his back to the garrulous wind he sets to work.

There are dark spaces beneath Daniel’s cheekbones, formed by shadow caught in the hollows and stubble like the aftermath of grassfire. His eyes roll in their sockets bereft of effort to focus. He bats a hand wrapped in filthy rags at a water tap and begins to peel the sodden cloth from his flesh. Water chases blood and dirt round the bowl. He tosses the rags onto the floor and tries to make sense of his hands. They resemble tree roots, upturned, clenched, choked with sap and stinking earth. Gnarled forearms tremble through tattered sleeves. His clothes hang from him. He tries to unzip his sweater but his fingers are unable to perform.

He has a bath in his rags and then another without them once he is able to remove them. He tosses the rags into a bin for burning and applies a fresh field dressing to each hand. Then he takes the coal scuttle to the bunker outside and pauses to look at the completed dry-stone wall. Save for a gate some hundred yards distant, the wall runs without break or deviation from the house to the rock pinnacles on the summit ridge. It passes through pasture and bogs and boulder fields and marches up steep slopes of scree, unstinting in its journey to the edge of the world. He feels no admiration for its tortuous construction, nor any sense of achievement now the months of drudgery has ended, but there is fresh hope in his heart where once he thought no such feelings could live. It is hope that makes him no longer afraid of sleep and the nightmares they bring, hope that quells his crippling tiredness, and hope that blesses the monochrome landscape before him with startling flushes of emerald and viridian. He breathes in this vision before clouds consume the sun and from the sea a great curtain of rain approaches.

The cottage door judders and belts of rain slap the tiny windows. He slumbers in his chair, an empty bowl and spoon still on his lap from a stew supper, and stares into the fire, remembering the night Carys banged on his door, a night not dissimilar to this. He closes his eyes and the events of that night several years ago replay in his mind, as they did so often.

She banged on the door three times. He rose, braced himself for the impact of elemental forces, and pulled on the handle. The hooded figure stumbled in and a cruel air came rushing through with it. He pushed the door shut and blinked away the rain as the figure dropped its hood and freed a shock of long black hair clotted with water.

“Sorry!” the woman said breathlessly. “Didn’t mean to just come running in.”

Her eyes were green and glistening, like leaves in morning dew. He stared at them as she carried on talking and unhitching her hiking gear.

“I’m lost. I was walking the ridge to the coast. Should have been in town two hours ago. But this weather came from nowhere. God, it’s wild! Do you have a phone? No signal on the mobile.”

“I don’t have a phone,” he said. “I could run you into town.”

She thanked him, then asked, “Mind if I dry my hair first?”

He found a towel and a mirror and made a cup of tea. She accepted a bowl of stew. He fed more coal to the fire and its glow lit their faces while they talked.

“Bet you get a few lost souls banging on your door,” she said.

He shook his head. “No, we’re off the beaten track. How did you find it?”

She looked at the fire and smiled nervously. “Well, if it had been a starry sky I’d have been able to find my way. But I’m a lousy map-reader. I thought I was much further along the ridge than I was. When the weather closed in I got worried. I thought, ‘I need to get off this before I’m blown off.’ That’s when I saw a stone wall. I reckoned it was leading south so I thought, ‘if someone can build a stone wall off this ridge, I should be able to follow it.’”

“So you followed the wall to my door?” he said, and smiled. “Good idea.”

She smiled at him.

He opens his eyes again and looks at the chair in which Carys sat that night. The memory stays with him. The nightmares are gone for now and he imagines her sitting there, the flush of her cheeks, the wet of her lips, the flames dancing in the black of her eyes. Just as it was that night, the elements lay siege to the valley and his door rattles to the sound of its guns. But unlike the many long nights since, a dry-stone wall defies this storm, a boundary, guiding the lost off the mountain to the sanctuary of his door.

The coals burn low and the light in the fireplace fades. He sets the bowl down on the hearth and sits back in the chair. There he waits for a bang on his door, and for a world of green in the morning light.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas. All rights reserved