I wrote this for my writing group; I had set them the task of looking at the endings of a variety of novels, poems, stories etc, and then using the ending as an inspiration to work towards – not to end with the particular situation or lines, but just as a stimulus… I thought since I had set them such a tricky task, I ought to have a go. I had the last stanza of a poem by Martín Espada, ‘Ezequiel’, and here is what i wrote:
“Oh look, look at this!”
Russell walked on a few paces and then stopped with exaggerated weariness and turned and plodded back to her. Why was he being like this? What was wrong? When she’d asked, he’d said in an offhand way ‘nothing, why should there be?’ … which meant something was wrong.
She was looking at a small limestone block with a grey metal plate attached.
In loving memory of Ezekiel, our son, cruelly torn from our embrace; “I will also bring upon you a sword which will execute vengeance” Lev 26:23
“Who was he?” she asked.
“Some kid, mucking about with his mates…” Russell stared at it and his face, which had once been so easy to read, every expression familiar and understood, was closed, his thoughts private and far away.
“Did you know him?” Ronnie asked trying to make conversation… her words felt dry and forced on her tongue, words which used to come so easily and flow without thought.
“Not particularly…” and he turned and continued his tramp up the hill.
How can you not particularly know someone? It was so hot on this bare hillside, she wanted to sit down and admire the view or sit down and talk, talk about things… But she roused herself to follow him, with a big sigh and a sense of foreboding. This was, if not the end, the beginning of the end…
“Hello, there! Wonderful day, isn’t it!”
She turned back and a man with a walking pole was climbing steadily towards her up the slope.
“Perfect,” she answered, not sure whether to slow to converse, or hurry on to catch up with Russell.
“I see you were looking at Zeek’s place,” he said coming up to her. Before she could make any comment he went on, “Is that Russ walking on ahead? Russell Broome?”
“I’m John, Russ and I were at school together, way back in prehistoric times.”
He glanced up the path and lifted his pole in salute; Russell, further up the dusty, chalky trail was looking down at them. He didn’t wave back but turned and continued to tramp up the track, quickly as if he was in a hurry.
“I was looking at this… this memorial but actually I was pausing to catch my breath.” Ronnie hoped the man, John would continue his walk but he stood, looking down at the memorial.
“Zeek was helping his dad with the sheep, he came up here and it’s thought he met rustlers, he was shot and the sheep were taken.”
Ronnie looked around; she’d heard the sound of sheep but there was no sign of any.
“How old was he?”
How tragic… a seventeen year-old shot and killed on this peaceful hillside. She asked the man if he’d known the boy, yes, her replied, they’d been at school together.
She wanted to say – the three of them, Russell, this John and Zeek, they’d been friends… but she didn’t and after a moment of silence, he said cheerio and began to follow the path.
“Oh, another thing, if you’re interested in history – it was in all the papers at the time when Zeek died here, that this was already known as the shepherd boy’s grave – some lad way back in ancient history was killed here too… people used to leave flowers…”
“How interesting,” and she was annoyed at repeating his word.
“There used to be a white wooden cross here, just a small one, I’m never sure whether I actually remember it or just think I do! Cheerio!” and he turned and continued his walk.
She was hot and fed up, Russell had disappeared completely behind a rocky outcrop and she sat down on a big stone, more of a boulder with a smooth indentation as if many people had sat here over the years.
In the sheltered side of the stone was a burst of yellow and she’d thought it might be some rubbish, a plastic bag perhaps, but it was a clump of yellow flowers with black centres… black-eyed Susans maybe? But up here on this hillside?
She stood up and looked up the pathway. She could see Russell half a mile ahead now, stumping along, head down, not admiring the view or looking where he was going. The other man, John was not far behind and she watched as he caught up with Russell and passed him.
There may have been an exchange of words, she couldn’t tell, the man had slowed but didn’t stop, and soon was striding away. Russel walked a few more paces then turned and looked round, presumably to check where she was. He was looking back along the path, then glanced down the hill and saw her.
She waved. He flailed his arms to beckon her, come on, hurry up, what the hell are you doing down there, he was clearly saying.
“Hello! Stopped for breath?” this time it was a friendly couple of middle-aged ladies, in khaki shorts, big boots, and woolly socks. “Shepherd boy’s grave!”
Ronnie took a deep breath and walked on with them, their friendly, hearty chat, raising her spirits.
Ezequiel, you are buried in the valley of dry bone,
There is thirst in the wood of your white cross
Heat in the tyre planted with sunflowers by your grave,
Prophecy in the bones. When your voice booms
Over the desert, all the bones will rise knocking,
Skulls snapping hard onto spines, sinews roping around shoulders,
Flesh swelling like bread on sinew, and the four winds
Gusting breath into the lungs of the dead. Ezequiel,
You will walk again with your grandfather of the .22 rifle.
You will walk again with your goats.
Although this was supposed to be a contained short story, as I wrote it other ideas came into my mind, and it maybe that it will become part of something much longer – not necessarily the beginning, although I think I want to start with the memorial on the hillside. It isn’t a mistake that there are two different stories about Zeek – one that he was mucking about with friends, the other that he was shot by sheep rustlers… and the mystery of why, if Russell had known him, did he bring Ronnie up the hill past the memorial… hmmm, lots of thoughts for me!