Excerpt: The Solace of Stones


An excerpt from The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (April 2016) by Julie Riddle. 



The new year dawned listless and drizzling. I didn’t resolve to get my act together, turn over a new leaf, mount a comeback. I drifted into 1994 the same way I had slipped out of 1993: sleeping late and slouching around the house in my long-john pajamas. Each morning the house fell quiet when Mom drove off to the elementary school and Dad disappeared into the basement to work in his gun shop. The weather was too cold and crummy for hikes or bike rides, like the ones he and I had taken together just a few months earlier, when I was strong and sure and he had followed my lead. Mostly I sat hunched in a corner of the sofa, my arms hugging my drawn-in knees, and studied the living room—its lamps and framed photos, shelved books and the television, Dad’s recliner, Mom’s potted plants, the piano—as though I were new to the place and couldn’t get my bearings. One morning, during my daily survey of the room, my eyes settled on an anchoring shape at its center, the shale hearth, sheeted with dust.

Years before, on a chilly March afternoon, my family sat abreast in the truck cab as Dad drove into the mountains. We crossed low bridges over streams and passed meadows and dense stands of forest and an occasional driveway leading to a glimpse of house and horse
corral. Higher up the mountainside the road narrowed and turned from pavement to dirt. Dad drove slowly past stump-littered clear cuts, stands of spindly larch, a weathered cabin, long abandoned and listing, on the verge of collapse.

At last he parked at a turnout where the road ribboned along the base of a rockslide. We climbed from the truck, and Mom handed out leather gloves. Joel and I clambered up the slope covered with sharp-angled shale, eager to carry out our parents’ instructions. We searched for small slabs that were similar in thickness, and I searched for pieces I thought were prettiest. We kept an eye out for shale with curved sides, for they were critical to the project’s success. When we found a rock that met the requirements we toted it to the back of the truck and laid it on the bed. I discovered a piece of shale the shape of a long diamond, as though it had been measured and cut with an intentional hand. I tucked the diamond rock in a corner of the truck bed, so it wouldn’t get lost or broken in the growing pile. When we returned home and unloaded the shale, Mom set my diamond rock aside, with a promise that it would be given a special place in the hearth my parents would build.

The next week Dad constructed a plywood oval stand in the exact center of the living room. He and Mom selected shale and placed the pieces on the stand’s surface. They stood back and surveyed their work, moved rocks around, discarded some and added others, until the shale fit like loose puzzle pieces, and the outer rocks’ curved edges formed an oval shape that fit the stand. Dad mixed up mortar and set the shale pieces in place. After the mortar had dried, I trailed my fingers down the gritty path winding between the shale’s curves and corners and traced the edges of the diamond rock. When my parents installed the carousel woodstove, its door would open over my rock, a watercolor wash of rust and caramel. I laid my palm on its cool, mottled surface and bore down. The strata beneath my hand held firm: sediment, pressed across centuries into shale, resting on a pine plywood hearth atop a pine plywood floor, supported below by timbered joists and posts in the basement, a concrete shell of limestone, sand, and water, the weighty layers of home upheld by endless earth. My childhood stake to place pinned me to solid ground.

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