Life in the village of Blackwood, Michigan, is one defined by natural beauty, regionalism, and a strong sense of what it means to be Welsh. In this collection of intertwined short stories and novellas, the fictional residents of this beautiful region come to life. Travel from the 1920s to the near future as these stories explore themes of survival and community pride.
In 1922, the Dee family struggles to rise out of poverty and see the dream of a house built of stone come to life in the opening story, “A House of Stone Is Forever, Part One.” To them, a stone house is more than simple shelter; it is a promise of continued survival in a house that is built to endure all the storms they may face over the years. When the house is completed, the family buries a treasure—an archive to ensure that their story is known by future generations.
As the years pass, the Blackwood community members struggle to adjust to the social and cultural changes that inevitably find their way into their idyllic community. And as the villagers attempt to exert increasing control over the environment, they may not be ready to pay the price they’ll be forced to pay.
Presenting a series of coming-of-age stories with environmental implications, A House of Stone Is Forever follows one family’s hopes and dreams for immortality.
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A House of Stone is ForeverSTORIES
By Gary Griffith
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Gary Griffith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA House of Stone is Forever
What is it about Welshmen? Why does our imagination run so wild? With a name like John Dee, I am no exception. I share that name with you, Father. We are both dreamers. One incongruity inevitably leads to another. That has always been our problem. We wander from person to person and place to place. Time loses its meaning. Only space remains. Anything is possible.
Today the March sky is full of gray clouds and bitter wind. I will honor your request. I will bury the past for the futurethese archives with the insignias and intricate details on the outside, just as you had made them. I am a few years late. I know you will forgive me for that. You had insisted that it happen on the first day of spring. That promise I have kept. You were like thata star gazer and a stone gatherer, always paying attention to the solstices and reading your almanac. I spear my shovel into the hard earth, but then pause. I have kept a few things outyour picture for one; it continues to captivate me. It has faded with time. A white pasty effect seeps in from all sides and has changed the grass where you stand to ashes.
It is the spring of 1922, your eighteenth year. An old, red-brick schoolhouse is in the background. You are clad in dark trousers, corduroy shirt, and sport jacket. The school is the old, turn-of-the-century style, typical of government buildings during that era: tall and narrow of design with a steep, sharp-angled roof, haunted windows, and a portico entryway.
You present a tall, lean figure for the camera's eye. I imagine it to be graduation day, a fine spring day in May. The morels must have been pushing their way up through the pungent floor of the North Woods. But I know this is no graduation day. Mother always made it abundantly clear that you never finished high school. "Just remember, John Dee," she would tell me, "any brains you received came from my side of the family, not his."
But I refuse to believe that. Not now, at least, holding your picture out at arm's length like this. Your dark hair is long on top and combed straight back, like Michael Douglas, giving a boyish roundness to your face that accentuates your prominent nose and ears. You are looking into the sun. Shadows fill your sockets, yet I can still detect your gaze, dark and amused, just as it always was right up to the endwhen you no longer recognized anyone, and they dressed you in that special orange vest and sat you daylong by their antiseptic window.
A sturdy looking woman stands next to you. She is not my mother. She wears a dark skirt and white knit top. A brooch can be seen just to the left, slightly beneath her throat and above her ample bosom. Her pose is much more reserved than yours. Her right arm hangs straight down, as if paralyzed. Her left hand hides at midthigh, deep in the pocket of her coat. Only her nervous smile gives the situation away.
Her brother, Hoyt, is taking the picture. He stands twenty feet in front of you, looking into the black Kodak. At first, you are wearing a porkpie. "John, put your hat on Ailda," he says. You grin and take it off and plop it on Ailda's head. She wears her hair fashionably short. Hoyt comes over and turns the hat to the right in a rakish angle. A breeze gently passes through the maples and makes soft sibilant sounds. I can tell by the way that your shadows have merged into a short, inverted V that it is just past noon. The moment is set forever, frozen.
The two of you make a handsome couple. You look Gatsbyesque, but you are no Gatsby by any means. Your left foot reveals the truth. You are leaning back slightly, striking the pose, causing the cuff to move up a little, exposing the thick heavy laces that run high up your foot, past your ankle. The toes are worn and need polish. They form the left point of the shadow, the one that points toward the north. They tell the story of the hard work you have known already at eighteen yearsstanding there that warm afternoon in May, the month you were born, on the threshold of summer and the rest of your life, and they foretell the hard years ahead.
Elbowdeep in guts and blood, you will work the slaughterhouse and bring home the meager pay that will keep everyone eating during those lean, Depression years. Killing the animals in such a brutal fashion takes an iron will and goes against your gentle nature. You will lean up against the damp cement walls and watch the frightened cattle nervously step down from the trucks, prodded along by the hard poles in the driver's hands. Sometimes you will step outside for a smoke and listen to the C&O blow in from Hitchcock, or you will think about the cool blue waters of Cartlett Pond, where the rainbow trout lurk.
I take a closer look at the picture. It is your right hand that interests me, so nonchalant next to your pants pocket with your thumb hooked in. Only a "bird's eye" like mine would have noticed it. At first I thought it a meaningless gesture, or possibly you were giving the "okay" sign to the camera, until I got out the magnifying glass. Your forefinger encircles it, a smooth dark stone, and the same one that now sits on the mantel piece in the living room of the stone house. Your shadow points north, toward the site a short distance away, where across the field, up the knoll and beneath the box elder tree, you will one day build your house of stone. Another woman will enter your life for fifty yearsa woman so mixed with the elements, so full of strength, kindness, and rage that she will overshadow your presence to the six children you will have together.
C.P. is the firstbornCalvin Prescott if you use the full name that mother gave. Mother will give names to all the children, a trait that I will one day inherit. She will give the girls plain and simple names, but the boys will have a high-minded namesexcept for me. You aren't much for that Calvin Prescott business. You are a man who gets down to the essence of things. In no time at all Calvin Prescott will become C.P., and C.P. it is. Calvin Prescott will appear on his gravestone, but in everyday life, it will be C.P.
Later on, there will be the twins, Andrew and Alfredidentical in looks but not in action. You will take care of that, too. Drew and Alfie it will be. But with the girls, Mother will name them Marie and then Janet. There will be no need for you to intervene on that one. Plain and simple are always fine with you.
"I never had much luck with my girls," you will say, when referring to their untimely deaths. Little Janet will be first, taken one spring day by the Michigan cellarthat crawl space you would eventually add to the stone housethe storing place for potatoes, jams, and jellies. This will be the project that involves everyone digging and carrying and reinforcingworking those long hours to stay ahead of the Michigan winter, while the children play. Into it she will fall, emitting her small, fragile scream, banging her head and cutting her delicate arm on a rusty nail. "Little Janet with the Dripping Curls" is what you will call her. You have your own way with names, too.
C.P. and his pa are walking up the path that cuts through the apple trees, tall grass, and hollyhocks. C.P. likes pushing the old, rusted out wheelbarrow. It is a real test of his muscle. He wants to be big and strong like his Pa. His Pa strolls along beside him. Neither is in any particular hurry. The bees are droning a sleepy, lazy tune to the apple blossoms. The wheelbarrow is filled with palm-sized stones that are shaped like prehistoric eggs. His pa says to him, "We'll use them later on for the porch, but for now they'll be markers." C.P. labors to keep the load even because he is the first born. One day he will be the eldest, and all responsibility will lie with him to watch over the rest of us.
He leans into the load of stones and looks at his arms, searching for those big-man-muscle-veins like he has seen in his Pa's arms, but there are none, not now, least-ways. Pa strolls alongside in that long-legged, easy manner of his, swaggering slightly in the rhythm of things, one hand knuckle-deep in his britches, the other dragging the shovel behind. He looks at the stones as if they aren't really stones but something else, like buried treasure or something. Pa says, "Stack a pile over yonder, C.P.," pointing toward the northeast corner. "That will be the First Stone." And he runs back and forth like the jackrabbit he was, trying to please his pa, until every last one of them are in place. There are the First Stone, the Second Stone, Third and Fourth. All formed into a pyramid just like Pa wanted, shaped on three sides with one on top. He keeps sending him for another and another and another, until everything is laid out.
Then C.P. says to his pa, "Pa, why is there four stones?"
And Pa says back to him, "Time will take of that. You will know in due time. A good home is built on four stones. That's all you need to know for now."
Just then the courthouse bell begins sounding. Twelve times it rings in those clear tones. C.P. can almost see the belfry, being up high and behind things like this, on the knoll that his ma picked out. The only thing keeping it from sight is the maples, thick and green and moving slightly in the summer air. There are trees beneath them layer after layer, running down toward the valley, where town is.
His stomach is gnawing away, but he knows his ma has her own ideas about when everyone can eat. She is still going over things with August Polawski. They stand there beneath the box elder tree that divides itself in a Y just perfect for riding. Ma has the same apron on she always has, white with little blue dots all over it, faded. It has big pockets in the front intended to cover up her big belly. Grandma says she is "with child," which means, C.P. will have a little brother or sister sometime in November.
Ma and August have the maps and papers out. Ma has her hands in her apron pockets where she always keeps the money for the tooth fairy and other things. She has worked him to agree, one dollar a month for a year. That is, if Pa can get down and sign up for the WPA, like he's supposed to. August is hot and uncomfortable in his dark suit. His shirt is rumpled at the belt where his belly hangs out. His blue tie is too short and way up on his chest. It is the first hot day of summer and August has to mop the side of his bald head and his neck with his handkerchief. Ma is doing all the talking and from time to time she half turns her back on him and shrugs her bony shoulders slowly and lets them back down again. Finally he shakes his head yes and she pulls a dollar out of her apron pocket and hands it to him. One dollar a month for twelve months. That's what they settle for on the land.
Meanwhile Pa has taken the wheelbarrow and shovel back down to the field and started digging again up next to the bluff. C.P runs to him as fast as he can.
"Pa, we got the land. Now we can have our own house."
His shovel is cutting through the dry field grass and forming an "O" in the hillside. He keeps digging and pawing at the earth with the blade of the shovel, until it hits up against something sharp and hard.
"Hear that?" he says. He continues prodding and prying. Pa is always digging for something it seems like, if not stones then worms or potatoes in the garden.
"What's that?" C.P. says. "What'd you find?"
He is on his knees now pulling and tugging until he's unearthed a white, smooth stone, perfect and symmetrical, the size of a squash or maybe bigger. He rolls it down the side of the hill.
"See this, C.P. This is what we're going to build our house of." He wipes the sweat from his face with his sleeve. "We're going to build a house of stone and it will stand for a thousand years, C.P. A thousand years. Long enough to see and survive the next ice age."
"Let's go eat, Pa. I'm hungry." August's big black Buick is rolling down the makeshift trail. "Let's have Ma fix us something to eat."
The ties are stacked up like jackstraws. Rory says they can have them if they want, because they aren't doing anybody any good just sitting there like that. They were supposed to be used for the second line they was planning to put in to run a train up to Chirk, "but you can forget that," he says. We'll be lucky to keep what we got with this Depression going on the way it is. He speaks to them through his green visor from behind his desk at the ticket counter. "You'll have to cut them to size." He has a toothpick in one corner of his mouth that he keeps working back and forth from one side to the other. Then he says, "Them ties is ten feet long. We'd a had to cut 'em too if we kept them because they's too long for the ballasts. So you better make up your mind because come Friday, them ties will be gone for sure." Pa is none too good at negotiating and Ma can't be here, as much as she'd like to, because of the puking. She's laid up with a hot water bottle pressed to her belly. She says the baby inside her likes the heat and it eases the pain.
Pa looks down at C.P. as if he's waiting for an answer. He adjusts his porkpie. C.P. can't keep his eyes off the train tracks outside. Everything is silent as though breath was held up inside a chest just waiting to let itself out, because at any moment the next train will be coming. You just know it by the stillness in the air and the way people are sitting about in the lobby with nothing to do. It's coming and everybody knows it. C.P. strains his ears, hoping to catch the faint sound of its whistle, but all he can hear is the rattle and tap of Rory's telegraph.
"How much you want for them, Rory?" Pa finally says.
"That's right," Rory says. "Even you can afford that, John. Take as much as you want by Friday, cause like I said, after that we got a freight coming in to haul 'em back to Grand Bay."
The poison violence seeps into C.P.'s veins. Just like that, I can feel it through the synapses of timethe ancient curse of the earthpuffing up the adder and closing off the pipe. "Even who can afford what, Mr. High and Might?" C.P. wants to say, but doesn't.
Rory stands up and walks through the side door of the office to join us. He presents a tidy picture with his white shirt, green armbands and black vest. He walks lively across the tiled floor, clicking his heels, and whistling a nonsense tune. C.P. has half a mind to trip him as he passes, but he doesn't because then he would have to face the even greater wrath of Ma. Rory steps through the glass door into the morning sunshine, and the others follow.
"How many you need, John?"
That's one thing Pa isn't very good at, figuring with numbers. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe a hundred. Maybe a little more."
C.P. thinks about what Ma said about all the smarts coming from her side of the family. He'd heard the same story as me. He didn't believe it either. Pa's not dumb. He's just got his own way of doing things. He's gentle with animals and handy with a saw. He was our pa.
Rory pulls a watch out of his pants pocket and checks it. Then he gives a little whistle like a falling bomb. "What you need a hundred ties for?" "I'm building a house," Pa says.
"You building a house with railroad ties?" C.P. starts getting mad again about the way he's making fun of Pa with his voice and trying to pretend that he's not.
"It will last a thousand years," Pa says. "I'm covering the ties with stone. It will be here long after we're gone, when the ice comes."
Rory gives that wheezy laugh, the kind that heavy smokers often have, like his lungs are a worn out accordion. "I'm sure it will, John. I'm sure it will."
C.P. feels more than a little embarrassed. He wishes Pa wouldn't say these things, at least not in public. People already think he's a little crazy, digging in the ground for stones and such, and now building a tie house and covering it with fieldstone. The kids at school sing this song, "John Dee, Crazy as Can Be." I wish he had said the truthwe're too poor for anything else, and that's why I'm using ties and fieldstone.
Rory checks his watch again and then pulls a baggage car out of a side door and wheels it up next to the unloading platform. The people begin to come out of the station and stand beneath the long awning. There is a mother with her babies, three of them all hanging on to her hand. She wears a blue bonnet and is still young and pretty with no gray hairs in her head like Ma does. A well-groomed man with gray hair is next. He totes two small suitcases. He is dressed in a dark, mail-order Sears and Roebuck suit and tie. He opens one bag and tries to sell Pa a cigar, Johnny on the spot. Pa reaches in his pocket and gives him a nickel for two of them and asks him for a light. "Kindly sir, most kindly indeed," he says and scratches a long match on the floor and watches it flair up for a few seconds before applying it to the Cheroot, which Pa draws on, turning his head at an angle and stooping down.
By this time C.P. can already hear the whistle in the distance, and his heart begins to do a dance. He wants to stay and see the train but Pa's had enough.
"Remember, Friday is the last day," Rory says.
Monday is already half over so they had four days at best to move the ties. C.P. can see the train up yonder on the tracks bearing down on them, slowing some with great clouds of steam and smoke belching out both above and beside.
Excerpted from A House of Stone is Forever by Gary Griffith Copyright © 2013 by Gary Griffith. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A House of Stone is Forever Part One....................1
The Big House....................54
The Black Berries....................91
A House of Stone is Forever Part Two: The Woman Who Fell From the Sky....................162