They say to build a wall one brick at a time. Or stone. Or rock. Build with whatever you have. Or can afford. I have built walls. I have. Stone walls. Wood walls. Log walls. For houses. On trails. Retaining walls. Barrier walls. Protective walls. And fences. I have built fences. With post and wire. Or stone. Say to keep animals out of a garden. I’ve planted trees too. Windrows, like a fence, or wall, to slow a wind and what it might bring. Walls meant to hold up. To protect against rain or river or a steep slope slumping. Some succeed but so often a wall does not make good on its promises.
Once, in the Pyrenees, I walked an ancient road. One built by Romans in the mountains created by Hercules. Or so the story goes. Mountains built as a mausoleum for his beloved Pirene – who did not love him or his violent ways. Pirene, who ran to the blazing woods so as to not be found, for she had no love for Hercules. The woods, she herself, set on fire. Hercules, following the mighty plume from the fire, found his beloved – burnt. So he piled stones. One by one, out of grief, until a mountain rose. Then mountains. So that all that came after would forever know of his sorrow.
The Roman roads are now trails that lead hikers up into mountains. Into the beautiful mausoleum of Pirene. The Pyrenees. Through oak and pine. I climbed above walled villages. Beautiful fortresses. And watched a dusk arrive. Watched as the lights of a village came on. The sky a haunting tease of brightness. A bruised cerulean spiraling to black. The coming of night no surprise. The ritual of it. The cycle. Long rays of light receding. Pulled back to earth and into the horizon by some mighty force.
I admire the work of the Romans. Ancient stones so carefully placed they hold even now. Placed one by one, and each atop the other. Dry stone walls. Meaning there is no mortar. Nothing but the fitting together of found stones. Or cut stones. Precise. The puzzle of it. I stood atop one such wall. Laid down atop it to see more closely the perfectly fitted stone. Ran my hand along the fissures, filled now with dirt and moss and lichen. I wondered at the hands that built. The ancient skill.
Mortar. The word has many meanings. Grout. Sealant. Filling. Meant to hold things together. Ground up rock and water. Limestone and sand. Or mortar as vessel. A vessel in which to grind substances to powder. To pulverize. Like spices. Or as a weapon, meant to pulverize, say the walls of a village. Mortar. A vessel meant to throw rock. Stone. Bombs. One by one. First by the Ottomans of Constantinople and improved upon ever since. Arching trajectory. Of mortar. Of walls. The way we’ve improved. Increased precision and strength through centuries of bombardment. The puzzle of it.
Hands that build. My father once said he would do no such thing. Design bombs. Build bombs. He had sure and talented hands. Skilled and imaginative. I have children, he said. He worked in such a place. Designers of weapons. They were looking to the next war. He was once a soldier and concluded no good ever came of any war. Nothing solved.
I was never a soldier though I fought with my neighbors. Their dogs attacked my son. I caught him barely before the dogs did. There were five. I snatched him as he toddled toward our car. The dogs snapping at his feet as I held him over my head. We shared a driveway with our neighbors though they thought it was theirs alone. The neighbors screamed through the trees and we screamed back. Stay off our property, they yelled. Fix the fence. Build a wall. Build your own driveway. We all yelled – we did. Build a fence. Build a wall. Make it stout. Build it one wire at a time. Barbed and dangerous. Build to protect. Build to keep out. It’s not all that surprising. The ritual of it. The idea. We tend to ignore our dark orbits. The vast night of us. The beasts inside.
I walk one night, near dusk, past the newly built driveway, and along the narrow trail that descends into the dark woods. Follow along the now fixed fence line. I have stood here, before, with clenched fists. I have. I have thought how I disliked my neighbors. How I wanted to do harm. I did. Oh, the faint chant one might hear then, sounding through the trees. The sing song of fires burnings, of Ottomans marching. Empires dragging their heavy cannons into being. My own dark heart chanting, pick up a stone. One brick they say. One stone. One fisted heart. Barbed and dangerous. Its an ancient path we wander. A trajectory we choose. Through strange foothills. Into our own immeasurable mountains of sorrow.