Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
A Stone to Mark My Passing
Lee Battersby

I was somewhere 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 chain-link fence.

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 or newborns.

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?”

“Love one.”

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 grimace.

“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 as well.

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 blush begin.

“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 own.

“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, round-cornered stone.

“This one.”

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: final, immutable.

“I still have to put that bit in.” His voice came from very far away.

“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 terror.

“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 place?”

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 possible.”

“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 later?”

“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 satisfaction.

“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 his glasses.

“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 that’s important.”

“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 light.

“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.

“What happened?”

“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 open.

“Okay then.”

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.

A 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 The Year's 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 published by Prime Books early in 2006.

Lee 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

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)

The virtuous medlar circle

is part of
Anna Tambour and Others

"A Stone to Mark My Passing" copyright © 2003-2005 by Lee Battersby, first appeared in the Canberra Science Fiction Guild's anthology ELSEWHERE in July 2003.  
It appears here with thanks to Lee Battersby, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2006