Cairns

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They came from the south, it was said. Pilgrims from far off lands, from the edge of the sea to the valleys of the great deserts. Men saw them on the roads, children drew them water from the wells, and women gave them bread at their doors. They came with their heads covered and their sandals worn, with dust on their clothes and dust on their faces. Old and young, rich and poor, men and women, they came. The bridge beyond the village walls was their purpose, to cross and continue their treks through trackless wastes and over mountain peaks. Men watched them pass and shook their heads, avoiding the eyes of these dirty wanderers. They were the roamers, the pilgrims, and they were left alone.

They touched nothing in the village. The children gave them water, the women gave them bread, and they took what they were given and left nothing behind. The wind stirred the dust as if to erase their footsteps, the sun wiped their shadows from the ground, and they left nothing behind.

But when they had crossed the bridge, when the mountain torrent was behind them and the empty road ahead, they did pause. To leave something behind.

Cairns stood beside the road. Heaps of stone placed as carefully as coins on a miser’s desk, left behind by men and women with nothing else. Hundreds of them stood now, after countless years, stretching out along the edge of the river’s gorge.

The villagers dared not touch even a single stone. Altars to the gods, they guessed. Or monuments to the dead. Penance, perhaps, for sins long since committed. Whatever their purpose, they were sacred.

The children alone thought to ask. They questioned the men that passed through, the women they drew water for, anyone that would listen.

Few answered. Some shook their heads, as silent as if the gods had left them mute. Others only smiled and said it was a story for pilgrims, not for children. And so their questions went unanswered, their curiosity, unsatisfied.

But still they asked. And at long last their answer came with the sun’s rising in the east, with the morning wind and the breath of a new day.

He came from the deserts, the men told them. There was sand in his beard, age in his stooped back. The children gave him water and the women gave him bread, and they asked him about the cairns. Why leave them behind? Who are they for?

The man took their gifts and smiled at their questions, and when he rose to move on he said only, “Come, and let me show you.”

The bravest followed him across the gorge. The water was high at this time of the year, choked with ice and black with silt it dragged from the mountains. It raged and screamed with voices that woke their fear, and the rope bridge swayed beneath their small feet, but still they followed him.

On the far side he knelt and took seven stones from his bag. The children crowded around, watching as he stacked them by the edge of the road with weary hands. He kissed the last stone as he set it down and rose, taking up his staff to continue his journey.

The children ran after him. Why stack the stones? Why leave them behind?

The man leaned on his staff and looked back at the pile of stones he’d left behind. A smile touched his weathered face, and he said quietly, “They are there to remember. When there is a river that is too wide, a mountain too high, or a night that is too cold, I look back to the stones. To remember that here I was afraid, that here I was overwhelmed, that here I wanted to give up and despair.” He nodded at the stones. “Here I fell. And here I got up again.”

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