By Jim Woessner
With great difficulty an old man climbs a creek bank carrying a large stone that looks as if it weighs twenty pounds. Although he walks slowly and bends at the waist, he appears relatively fit for someone in his eighties. His short white hair and stubby beard accentuate the deep lines in his tanned face. His misshapen hands, clothes, and shoes are covered in mud. His oversized trousers are cinched tightly with an old leather belt. He wears a torn and stained teeshirt, though it is all he needs in the heat and humidity.
A tall, young man with a red complexion and bright orange hair stops when he sees the old man. He is perhaps nineteen or twenty, clean shaven, and has intense, green eyes. The old man doesn’t notice him at first.
The young man says, “Do you need help?”
The old man looks up, startled to see someone standing so close above him. There is no sign of recognition between the two. He thanks the young man but says that he doesn’t need help.
“Are you sure?” the young man asks. “That stone looks heavy.”
“Quite sure,” the old man says. “It’s part of my practice.”
“Practice?” he asks.
The old man doesn’t answer.
The young man watches him struggle to climb the bank.
“Are you building something?”
“Building,” the old man repeats. He looks at him quizzically. “Not building. I collect rocks.”
The young man looks puzzled. When the old man reaches the top of the bank, he rests the stone on top of another large boulder, then puts his hands on his lower back and arches backwards to relieve the strain in his muscles. He is perspiring and having trouble catching his breath. He looks at the young man but says nothing.
“So tell me,” the young man says, “what will you do with your rock?”
The old man hesitates. He sizes up the young man before answering, then shakes his head with resignation. “As I said, it’s part of my practice.”
“Forgive me for asking, but what do you mean by ‘practice’?”
The old man laughs quietly to himself, revealing only a smile. “That’s what I asked when I first heard the word.”
The young man waits for an explanation.
Sensing this, the old man continues. “It was my daughter’s idea.”
“Your daughter,” the young man states.
The old man nods. “After her mother died, she said that I needed a practice. I didn’t know what she was talking about, like you. But she was insistent, so I said I’d think about it.”
“And what did you decide?”
“I decided to collect heart-shaped rocks. So that’s my practice. Heart-shaped rocks.”
“Interesting,” the young man says. “And what do you do with them?”
“I put them in my garden.”
“What kind of garden is it?”
“You’re a curious one, aren’t you? Asking all these questions.”
“I’m sorry,” the young man says, apologetically. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“Well, if you didn’t mean to intrude, you’re doing a damn poor job of it.”
The young man doesn’t say anything. He smiles, looks down, and starts to turn away.
Just then the old man says, “It’s a rock garden.”
The young man turns back and looks at him. “Like the Japanese?”
“I wouldn’t know about the Japanese.”
“How far do you have to carry your rocks?” the young man asks.
The old man gestures with a finger, and the young man follows with his eyes. Across a small meadow he sees the red-tiled roof of a house. Next to the house is a pile of rocks that reaches nearly as high as the roof itself.
“I call it Heart Mountain,” the old man says smiling. “Not too original, I suppose.”
“No,” the young man says, matching the old man’s smile. The young man then notices the old man’s gnarled and cut fingers. “Shouldn’t you be wearing gloves for this kind of work?”
“You’re observant,” the old man says. After a moment’s hesitation, he adds, “I suppose I want to end the separation.”
“What do you mean?”
“Between me and the rocks. I carry them. I wash them. I think about where I want to put them. Either in the garden or on the mountain. It takes a day or two. Sometimes longer. And then when they’re ready, I place them carefully with a few words.”
“What do you say?”
“Nothing profound.” The old man looks at the stone. “It’s different each time.” He hesitates, then adds, “I just sort of wish them well.”
The young man lets the old man’s words sink in. Then he, too, looks at the stone. “This new stone you’ve collected. It doesn’t appear to be heart-shaped.”
“No?” the old man says, seeming surprised. “Well, hearts are hard to find.”
“I don’t understand,” the young man says. “Why did you get one that isn’t heart shaped, I mean, if you’re collecting heart-shaped stones?”
“Hmmm,” the old man says. “It’s like I said, you have to look hard, but it’s there. The heart is in there, somewhere, I promise you. I suppose that’s what makes it a practice, don’t you see?”
“I don’t know.”
The old man smiles, picks up the stone, and continues in the direction of the red tiled roof.
Jim Woessner is a visual artist and writer living on the water in Sausalito, California. He has an MFA from Bennington College and has had poetry and prose published in numerous online and print magazines, including the Blue Collar Review, California Quarterly, and Close to the Bone. Additionally, two of his plays have been produced in community theatre.