A Stone to Mark My Passing
between Bridgetown and Pemberton when the car finally died. Not
that location mattered very much to me at that point. For the
last fifty kilometers my head had barely left the steering
wheel. I’d been fighting sleep for hours; afraid to close my
eyes and see the end of my happiness replayed. It was still too
soon, still too painful, to look at the events that had
precipitated my headlong flight.
When the engine stopped ticking and creaking, I found the
strength to raise my head and peer through the windscreen. I had
left the road and appeared to be in a cemetery. In front of me
were rank after rank of upright headstones, standing to
attention at an even spacing: shoulders back; stomachs in; like
so many terracotta warriors awaiting the next life. The rows
receded twenty or thirty feet before fetching up against a
Dimly, I recognised that something about them seemed wrong. It
took a few minutes to realise what that was. The stones bore no
inscriptions. They were as blank and smooth as painted doors.
What was more, they were separated by no more than one or two
feet. If this was a graveyard, it was one for nameless dwarves
The car door opened at the second attempt. I fumbled my way out
and fell to my knees on the hard pavement, then used the door to
pull myself to my feet and look around. The car had rolled
through an open gate, bowling a path over four or five rows of
headstones before bumping to a stop against one that was in the
shape of a large Celtic cross. A sign swung on poles above the
gate. It read ‘Purge’s Masons: When You Need Us’.
I shook my head. I wasn’t in a cemetery. Fair enough. I’d
started to realise that anyway. But the second half of the
sentence didn’t seem to make sense. Or if it did, it was the
worst sales pitch I’d ever seen. I looked around. At the other
side of what I now knew was the display yard stood an open-sided
workshop. I would need to talk to whoever ran the place, I
supposed, to explain my entrance and pay for any damage. The
strength returning to my legs, I walked towards the building.
As I got closer I saw someone hunched over a large table,
running their hands across an indistinct object that lay in
front of them. I managed to avoid knocking over any more stones,
by good luck rather than good aim, and made my way over. The
figure looked up as I approached. He was an old man, with long
snow-white hair that dissolved into a spray of stubble and beard
across his jaw and lower face. What had seemed a patterned shirt
from a distance proved to be a crisscrossing of old scars on his
bare chest and back, a spider-web of white creases against the
dark brown of his skin. He tilted his head in enquiry.
“I, uh . . .” I managed “I seem to have had a bit of a bingle.”
I pointed a thumb behind me at the car.
He tilted his head further to follow my thumb, then smiled.
“Looks like it. Pardon the observation, but you look like shit.
Want a drink?”
He pointed to a bar fridge underneath a nearby workbench.
“Help yourself. The VB’s mine, you can have the Nookie Broon.”
I opened the fridge and saw the promised cans, handed his across
and pulled the tab on mine. A welter of froth overflowed, and I
sucked some from my fingers. The old man looked at it with a wry
“Pommy beer.” He smiled. “Your stomach will throttle you in your
sleep one night, you just wait.”
I felt myself smiling back at him, my first smile in well over a
week. The muscles in my face felt unfamiliar. He motioned
towards a stool and I dropped onto it. “Listen, about the damage
. . .”
“Don’t worry. Nothing’s broken.” He turned back to his work,
which I now saw was a large headstone upon which he was carving
somebody’s details. “In fact, I’m glad you’re here. I have
another stone outside that I have to finish today. I could do
with a hand getting it in here.”
“Won’t be long.” While he worked, I watched his back, losing
myself in the white scar tissue that wallpapered his skin. His
shifting muscles, and the blunt sounds of the hammer striking
the chisel, retrieved a memory of similar dimensions.
I stood in a street in Hanoi watching a young man, no more than
sixteen or seventeen years old and delicate as a doll, carve a
grave for his grandfather’s stall.
The letters he carved were perfect: better than I could have
written even had I a template to guide me. I fell into the
pattern his hands made through the air: tiny olive butterflies
darting here and there, chewing away the stone and leaving
behind the memory of a man’s life. Then my companion had touched
my shoulder and caused me to jump in shock. I remember the boy’s
smile, shy and amused, offered without so much as a glimpse up
from his art.
The companion hadn’t lasted the holiday. Later I returned to the
street to find the boy with the butterfly hands but he was gone
A cough interrupted my reverie. The mason had stopped his
carving, and was talking to me once again.
“I’m sorry?” I said. “I was miles away.”
“I asked you if you were looking at something in particular.” He
sat facing me, exposing his chest fully to my view.
“I . . . uh . . . um . . .” I avoided his even gaze, feeling a
“It’s okay.” He said. “I’m so used to them that I forget how
they must look the first time.” He ran a finger along a path of
scars. I followed its progress.
“How . . . how did they . . .?” I shadowed his finger with my
“One of the outcomes of my profession. You’ll see a bit later, I
think. Each scar here represents a work completed, and a gift
given. Now, are you ready to give me a hand?”
“Huh?” Hypnotised by his voice and slowly moving hand, it took a
moment to refocus myself.
“I asked if you were ready.” He stood, and waited patiently for
me to come to my senses and do the same. We walked into the
yard; he pushing a trolley from the workshop, me with head
bowed, shuffling in his wake. He led me over to the corner
furthest from the building, stopping before a simple,
The stone was nothing special. Simple, even elegant perhaps, the
kind of restrained style of which I personally approved. I’ve
never been one for ostentation. Then I saw the name that ran
across the top, the date of birth below, the all-too-familiar
details underneath, the quote from Byron I can recite in my
sleep. The space where the date of death would be chiseled in:
“I still have to put that bit in.” His voice came from very far
“I . . . whatwhat is this?” I choked from a throat suddenly
empty of air. I couldn’t tear my eyes away to show him my sudden
“Something I’ve been working on for a couple of days.” His hand
fell on my shoulder, hard and heavy and stone cold. “I wasn’t
sure if you’d make it here or not. The way you’ve been driving
you might have run off the road anytime, and the path here isn’t
always that easy to find. You really have to be looking for it,
in one way or another.”
I twisted aside from his touch, stumbled backwards away from
him. The back of my legs collided with a headstone and I thumped
to the ground. “You didn’t . . . who are you? Where is this
He shrugged and squatted down across from me, leaning his back
against my carved name. “This place? An end to a journey, for
some. For others it’s a departure point. Depends on the person,
and why they came here.”
“What are you, Tom Bloody Bombadil?” Now the initial shock had
passed, my fear began to bubble up as anger. “Can’t you give a
straight question a straight answer?”
He laughed. “No fantasy stories here, I’m afraid. It’s far more
mundane than that.”
“Mundane? How can you even know my name? How can you know all
this stuff about me? How can you have been working on this thing
for. . .since. . .?”
“Since you ran out on Aaron?” His voice was soft, but the words
hit me like a stoning. I stared, dumbstruck. He continued as if
he were simply talking about the weather.
“Sometimes people run, David. Not all that often, but sometimes.
If a person is in enough despair, or the pain finally closes
over their heads and they begin to drown, they run. They don’t
look where they’re running. They just obey the urge to get away,
anywhere, as long as it’s away as quickly and as far as
“No. It wasn’t like that. I just had to move out, that’s all.”
“Pack all your furniture in the car then, or is the truck coming
“What would you know?”
“I’ve seen it before.”
His eyes stared just over my shoulder, as if he was not speaking
so much to me as to a group of people who sat with me at their
head. He looked very sad, as if he recognised each one of us,
and knew why we were all there. His hand traced the white paths
on his chest, jumping from one quadrant of skin to another as if
searching out individual scars.
“People don’t realise that the pain is within them. It’s not
tied to place or time. They don’t leave it behind. Sometimes
when they run, they find a path between somewhere and somewhere
else. That’s when they come to a place like this.”
He waved a hand at our surroundings. I followed it, half
expecting to see the audience behind me doing the same. There
was nobody there. We were alone.
“It’s not always a mason’s yard. For some it might be a bar in a
back alley that nobody else seems to notice. For others a school
oval with an old gardener painting running tracks in the grass.”
He looked straight at me. “For you, it’s here.”
“I don’t understand.”
He stood up, rubbing his hands against his thighs. “Oof. I’m not
so young I can crouch like that for very long. I don’t know any
better way to explain it, really. It’s just that there’s this
place, you came here because you needed to, and this is what
you’ll take away. Now come on. I still have to finish it, and
you’re leaving soon.” He leant down and held out his hand.
“But why? What is this all about?”
“You’ll understand when you get the first new opportunity, but
you won’t find it sitting on your arse here, will you? Come on.”
He pulled me to my feet.
“Everyone understands in the end, David. Everyone takes
something away. Everyone leaves something behind in return.”
“What do I leave?”
His fingers hovered over the scars on his chest. “We’ll work
that out later. Help me lift this up now.”
We lifted my marker onto his trolley. I ran my hands across its
surface, feeling the warmth where he had leant against it. In
silence we trooped back to the workshop, setting the stone onto
the workbench and then stepping back. He clapped his hands in
“Right then. I’ll need a number four chisel for this, I think.”
He pointed to a rack on the workbench next to me. I picked out
the right tool and handed it across to him.
He pulled a pair of glasses from the pocket of his shorts, sat
down, and bent over the headstone. He rubbed his hand over the
blank area, then picked up a mallet and put his chisel on the
spot. He raised his arm for the first strike. I made a small,
uncertain noise in my throat. He looked up at me over the rim of
“Should I . . . I mean, do you think I should watch? You know,
see what you . . .?”
He shrugged. “Some do. Some don’t. I’m not sure it makes all
that much of a difference in the end, really.” He bent back over
his work. “Just a few small knocks, that’s all it takes. Then
you’ll give me what you need to give me, and you’ll be on your
way. A few,” his mallet descended and the chisel made its first
bite into the stone, “small knocks. That’s all it ever takes.”
I watched him carve the date of my death into the rock. With
every arc of the mallet, every flake of discarded granite that
spun off and fell to the floor, a small sliver of pain split
away from the heavy weight inside me. A chunk of stone leapt
into the air and whirled away, an image bright on its glassy
surface. Time slowed. It was Aaron I could see, trapped on the
madly spinning fragment. Standing in isolation, neither the
superman he had appeared at the start of our relationship, nor
the monster at the end. A man, just a man. With that knowledge
came a little understanding of my own part in our story. The
pain shifted within me.
Then Bang! Time sped up as hammer met chisel once more. Aaron’s
fragment fell to the floor unheeded, and another shard of my
life spun into the air. My father’s face, alone on a chip of
stone . . .
It went on that way until I lost measure of time. Chip. I
understood just how long ago the schoolyard bullying was. Chip.
Another number was revealed. Chip. A month began to appear, and
it wasn’t so important that my job lay in tatters. Chip. A year
emerged and the mason began to talk, his voice as even and
measured as his careful mallet blows.
“When you were twenty-five your world ended, and you were faced
with a horrible decision, a terrible decision. Nothing was as
you thought it was. You could either run from that truth or you
could face the fact that no matter what had happened you still
had the future to live through. No matter what happened you
would be thirty in five years, fifty in twenty five, and dead
sometime between now and the heat death of the Universe. So you
made your decision, whatever it was . . . there, it’s done.”
I looked down at the stone before him. There lay my death,
coldly displayed. Final, immutable, unchangeable. The old mason
ran a gentle hand over it.
“Does that seem like a long time to you, or short?”
I touched the cold lettering. “It doesn’t matter, does it? It’s
not what’s already happened. It’s how I fill in the time left
“Puts it into perspective, doesn’t it?”
And just like that it let me go. All the pent-up hurt and
confusion and fear. The anger at Aaron for not being the perfect
answer to my needs; the terror I felt at being alone and not
being able to see what came next; the dreadful wishing that it
would all just end and I wouldn’t have to lift my head and try
all over again. They faded into the past. It still hurt. Maybe
it always would, when I stopped to think of them. But I
understood that those things were not all there was to my life.
Pain is only part of living. I smiled, and it wasn’t such an
unfamiliar sensation this time. The old man had said I made a
decision. It was no decision at all, really.
Then he gasped, snapping me out of my newfound peace. His chest
was covered with blood, bright and viscous in the mote-filled
“Above the shelf. Medicine cabinet.”
I ran to it and dumped its contents on the bench, finding
bandages and gauze and returning to clean and dress the wound.
“It’s not deep. It’ll leave a scar though.”
“Did you slip? I didn’t see . . .”
He stopped my hands with his. “This is what you give. We’re both
better for it.”
“But . . .”
“Gifts work both ways. Just accept it, okay?” He brushed his
dressings. “Nice job. Now, I still have to polish this stone and
get started on a new one. Fetch us a drink would you?” He winced
as he pointed at the little bar fridge. “Mine’s the VB . . .”
When it was over,
we took the canvas-wrapped headstone and laid it gently in the
boot of my car. The old mason looked down at it.
“When you need to remember.”
I closed the boot. He walked over and held the driver’s door
I climbed into my seat, put the key in the ignition, and turned
it once. The engine that had given up and died only hours
earlier now roared into life. The fuel gauge needle climbed
towards the ‘F’. The rev counter rose to eight hundred and sat
there, steady as a rock.
“It’s not dead anymore.”
“It has no reason to be.”
He closed the door, then reached through the open window and
gently touched my shoulder, once. I put the car into reverse and
moved backward out of the yard.
Through the windscreen I saw him unwind the bandage and show me
the new red scar that ran from the top of his left shoulder to
just above his nipple. He waved once, then moved back amongst
the headstones. By the time I reached the road he was already
re-arranging those that had fallen. The road stretched away in
two directions. I picked one, and drove away.
Stone to Mark My Passing first appeared in the Canberra
Speculative Fiction Guild's anthology
ELSEWHERE in July 2003, and
received an honorable mention in
Best Fantasy and Horror:
17th annual Collection
edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, Gavin Grant. This story will
also appear in Lee Battersby's upcoming collection, The
Divergence Tree, to be
early in 2006.
Battersby has more than 40 story sales in Australia, the US
and Europe. He lives in Perth Western Australia, with his wife,
writer Lyn Battersby, and anywhere between 2 and 5 children
depending on the weekend. He maintains a self-indulgent and
friendly blog at
notes: Lee failed to mention not only that his stories are
award-winning, but that he has been named as a tutor for
Clarion South 2007, an honour no matter how you spell it. He
should, however, be locked up. Read an
interview where he admits his intentions for readers' heads.
Contact Lee Battersby at
llbatt (at) dodo.com.au