One the edge of a quiet village, a man builds a wall. One day, they’ll know why.
It was the centenary of the village’s founding and, as would be expected, there was a great deal of celebration. The parish council put on a magnificent spread with trestle tables that seemed to cover half the green, there was a parade through the square, with the Mayor himself sitting in an old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage and waving at the villagers watching, as if he hadn’t been selling them bacon in his butcher’s shop that very morning. Some of the lads from the pub had a band and so put on a show for everyone afterwards and there were banners and bunting hanging from every house and shop, and people danced and drank and reminisced and everyone agreed, even before dusk had fallen, that it was a splendid day that all would remember for many years. One thing would come to overshadow that magical day though, and loom large over the lives of everyone in the village for a long, long time. You see, that was the very day that he arrived.
It’s safe to say that no one noticed him at first. He was just another member of the throng, and if someone didn’t recognise him, perhaps they thought everyone else must, and resolved to introduce themselves later. But no one knew him. He was a stranger, and there hadn’t been one of those in the village for…well…for as long as almost everyone could remember. He didn’t stay for the celebration. In fact, he passed right through, moving with a purpose that was all but unknown in the sleepy village. He went right past the square, down the winding lane, by the buttery and the old mill, over the little bridge and right up to the End Field. Everyone had always called it that, but really it wasn’t much of a field at all. There was a real field right by it, owned by a usually-diligent farmer who, just at that moment, was chewing his way to victory in the annual cheese-eating competition. He was grand champion five years running, but all agreed this year he had outdone himself, particularly given the sheer volume of ale he’d consumed beforehand. There was no prize for drinking the most ale, but if there was, he’d have won that too.
None of this troubled the stranger, if he was even aware of any of it at all. No one but the birds nesting in the trees on the edge of the forest observed his progress across End Field, and maybe they remarked upon it amongst themselves. Remarked, that was, on the way the young man walked with such conviction, as if he knew precisely where he was going, though he was, by all accounts, a newcomer and no one could have said they’d seen him in the village or even nearby before. And yet here he was, bold as brass, removing his dark jacket and rolling up his sleeves, as if set to begin a mighty task – which of course he was.
End Field was just a patch of wasteland at the end of the valley. Beyond it, the land rose up towards the hills that shimmered over the horizon. No roads led in that direction, as there was nowhere much for them to lead to. The only road out was on the other side of the village, which led to the world at large with its towns and cities and smoke and noise: nothing any of the villagers would have cause to concern themselves with. So this was, in every sense, the end of things. The farmer whose land abutted End Field might have expanded his fields to encompass it, for surely his platoon, his legion, his veritable army of white, bleating sheep would appreciate the extra room, or maybe he could have built a new cowshed, or tried out a new crop. But he didn’t, because it was known, as it had been known to his father, and his father before him, all the way back to the ancestor of his who’d settled in this very spot when the village was founded, that the land in End Field was no good, and moreover it might be cursed, though the librarian would tut and frown whenever she heard such daft talk in the street, being a woman of firm beliefs in the principles of scientific inquiry (though there wasn’t a book in her library written in the last fifty years, and her knowledge of the physical sciences could best be described as antiquarian).
In any case, there was a practical reason that End Field had poor prospects as a field, despite its name. The whole area – and it was a good acreage of land, to be certain – was strewn with boulders and rubble. Huge great lumps of stone, worked and unworked, some caked over with moss or lichen, many partially buried in the ground. Local lore had it that a castle or maybe an abbey had once stood on the site, but no one knew any more than that, and there wasn’t a soul with anything but a passing interest in archaeology in the village, and so it was more or less left undisturbed, though of course much of the stone had found its way into the walls of various houses and businesses, and indeed the keystone above the entrance to the village hall was clearly a work of some ancient hand to judge by the strange, arcane scratches on its mottled grey surface. Scratches, that the librarian sagely announced one day, were most likely Neolithic writing made by cavemen who would have lived here thousands of years ago (despite there being no caves nearby) or, if not that, perhaps an important Anglo-Saxon relic, a sacred object over which the blood of many Englishmen and Vikings had been spilled. Or even, she hazarded, the original Stone of Scone on which the ancient kings of Scotland had parked their kilted bottoms, though everyone knew that was probably unlikely, given that the famed Stone was very much accounted for. Still, it passed the time to speculate on such unknowables, and most of the villagers were of the opinion that too much knowledge was just asking for trouble and a little mystery made life interesting.
Again, the man in the End Field knew none of this. Or perhaps he did. Whatever the truth, he wasn’t saying, and gave every appearance (though it was still only the trilling birds who watched him) of being singularly devoted to one particular task, which he began without hesitation, even as the sound of revelling still rose from the distant green. Even as fireworks lit the sky at night, providing the only illumination for his work save for the weak yellow light from an oil lantern that he’d brought with him, he toiled, speaking not a word, save perhaps secret thoughts to himself. He was young and strong, but the work taxed even him. He lifted the stones from their resting places in the earth and, slowly and laboriously, carried them over to one part of End Field. Once he had a few dozen assembled, he began to stack them atop one another, placing them in a neat long row. When they were all erected thus, he went back for more and so it continued all through the night.
When morning came, most of the village slept in late, the Mayor having agreed to give everyone the day off, but of course cows and sheep and pigs pay no heed to the proclamations of men. The farmer, though his head hurt fiercely and his gait still swayed a little, was up and about to do the chores that needed doing. When he made his way up towards the head of the valley, the very limit of his land around mid-morning, he paused and tilted his head at what he saw. His sheep troops gathered around, attentive to their general, but only because he held in one hand a wooden pail filled with feed. Ignoring his loyal soldiers, he pushed through their ranks and propped one foot on the fence that separated his real field with the in-name-only End Field and watched what was going on.
The stranger had not been idle overnight. Now a wall perhaps three-hundred yards long and waist-high on a tall man (as the farmer was) stretched across End Field, and the workmanship was fine. The lad, still in his shirtsleeves, face betraying his weariness, was stopped at the near end, adjusting the position of one stone before standing and admiring his handiwork. His expression was not one of pride but what the farmer might have called, if pressed, a sort of tired resignation. And it wasn’t the tiredness of his body either. This was something deeper than that.
The farmer tipped his cap as the young man turned to him. “S’a fine wall, son,” he said.
“Yes. It needs to be.”
Perhaps, the farmer thought, he’s one of the schoolmistress’s brood, still drunk from whatever hooch he and his cohorts had managed to smuggle away last night. “Needs to be, eh? And why would anyone need a wall just here?”
“When it’s needed, you’ll know.”
“Is that so?” The farmer peered out across the horizon, where the valley rose and the peaks of the hills were just visible beyond its lip. “Ain’t nothin’ out that way, my lad. No need for a wall here, so far as I can see.”
“Not yet, no,” the man said cryptically.
Feeling a little unmanned by the stranger’s odd words, the farmer went back to his business, but he glanced over his shoulder to see him crouching down and carrying on with his building, as if their conversation had never happened.
This continued for days and, slowly, word spread. Soon it was known to everyone in the village that a fellow nobody knew was up in End Field, building some sort of wall. “A wall for a house? Is he come to live here, do you think? Will he want a wife?” asked the pub landlord’s daughter. Her friend looked down her nose at her. “Why don’t you ask him yourself? There he is now.” She pointed across the green, to where the man himself was striding down the road with the same sense of purpose that seemed so remarkable to the unhurried folk around him.
She’d have her chance and then some for, after nearly a week of working without pause, the stranger came to the pub and asked for food, ale and lodging. He had no money to pay, he explained apologetically, but he had a strong back and a knack for building, so might there be any jobs he could do by way of recompense? And of course there were. He devoured a meal that would have served five large men, washed it down with a gallon of ale and then slept for two days in the back bedroom which had never before been rented out, the pub only rarely receiving visitors from the outside world. Since he had availed himself so freely of what was offered by his hosts, the builder was as good as his word, and more than paid back his debt by helping with every chore imaginable. When he was deemed to have done enough, he returned to End Field and resumed his work. Things continued in this fashion for many weeks, as summer crept into autumn.
At first he was a curiosity, with people sometimes crossing the bridge themselves to look at the outsider and the wall he was building. After so much labour, it was quite impressive now – head height and spanning the width of End Field, but it was clear its creator was not yet content, for he worked as fast and determinedly as ever. When asked what he was doing, the lad just told them what he had told the farmer the first morning he’d arrived. The wall needed to be built, and its purpose would eventually become apparent. They left him to it, but afterwards felt uneasy.
Finally, the issue was brought up in a parish meeting. The chair of the parish council, a woman who had clawed her way to power in the village and now guarded it like a particularly sour-faced hen protecting her precious eggs, had assembled all the local worthies she deemed appropriate. The vicar of course was there, and the Mayor had deigned to appear, though he usually made a point of being elsewhere for these meetings, the constable, tall and smart in his uniform, the landlord and several others whose only qualification was a certain concern for the orderliness of things, and a dread of the dangers of violating such sacred principles. Minutes were taken by the verger, as was usual.
“Well, I say it’s all very suspicious,” the chair said, “very suspicious indeed.”
“It’s a bit odd, I’ll grant you that,” said the landlord, “but he’s a nice enough boy. Keeps to himself. Doesn’t say much.”
“He should explain himself,” a busybody interjected, “it’s no good keeping to yourself when everyone’s asking questions. I mean, what is he doing?”
“He’s building a wall,” the landlord replied, “isn’t that obvious?”
“Yes, but why?”
Everyone had heard the answers supplied by the builder himself and began to argue about their meaning. Before a riot broke out and people starting hurling the biscuits at the walls, the chair took control. “Constable, is there not something you could do about all this?”
The constable could only shrug. “No law against building a wall, madam.”
The busybody spoke up again. “But surely, there are planning laws and such? If I wanted to build a…a castle in my back garden, wouldn’t I need to get permission first?”
“He’s not building a castle,” the landlord said, “he’s building a wall.”
“No law against building a wall,” the constable repeated firmly.
“I think there’s another issue we’re missing,” said the gossip sitting next to the busybody, “what he builds on the land doesn’t matter, the point is it’s not his land.”
That led to some murmurs and head-scratching, and all turned to the Mayor, who looked surprised to be the centre of attention, his role being largely ceremonial outside of the odd centenary. “What now? The land? Well, it’s End Field – does anyone own it?”
“No one’s ever wanted it,” the landlord said.
The chair smiled thinly. “Evidently they do now. What if he built his eyesore on the green, I ask you? End Field is common ground. It belongs to all of us.”
The busybody, the gossip and the fussbudget on her other side, all nodded sagely. “It’s part of our heritage,” said one, “It’s an archaeological site,” said another, “He shouldn’t have all those stones for nothing,” added the third, “they belong to the village. We demand compensation for them. I never asked for a wall.” On that at least, everyone seemed to concur. The constable agreed to go and talk with the man and bring up this thorny problem the very next day.
Dawn was cold and crisp, and the first frost of the year was clinging to the blades of grass that waved in the gentle wind blowing down the valley. The constable rode his bicycle through the village, past the buttery and the old mill, over the little bridge and then struggled up the bumpy incline to End Field. He was astonished by the progress of the wall. It stood twice the height of its builder now, and was twice as thick as before to boot. Now the lad used mortar, and the wall looked formidable indeed. More than a mere curtain of stones, it had now begun to take on shape and purpose, with buttresses and pillars supporting its weight. As impressive as it was though, it was clear it was unfinished. The young man scrambled across its face, a dark, spiderlike figure negotiating the handholds expertly.
“Excuse me!” called out the constable. “I say, excuse me!” He was ignored and so, after a few moments, set down his bike and strode across the intervening ground so he stood near the base of the wall, looking up at its unconventional architect. “Oi!”
That got his attention. The man looked down and frowned. “Oh. Hello. Can I help you?”
“Get down here right now, sunshine.” The constable wasn’t one to raise his voice, but he knew that sometimes an officer of the peace needed to express some authority. The builder did what he was told, scrambling back down to earth.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked calmly.
“No problem, my lad, just wanted to ask you a few questions.”
“Oh, well, go ahead I suppose…”
“I wasn’t asking, young fella me lad.”
“You just said you were going to ask questions.”
“No, I’ll be asking those. I just wasn’t asking to ask.”
“But I said you can ask.”
“I don’t care whether you think I can or can’t.”
“You want to though?”
“Of course I bloody do!”
“Then it’s fine.”
“I don’t bloody care if it’s bloody fi…” He stopped and took a deep breath. His temper rarely got the better of him, but there was something about this chap that rubbed him the wrong way. “All right, let’s get to the questions, shall we?”
“Was that a question?”
“We shall get to the questions. Won’t we?”
“‘Ere, do you want a bloody thick ear, or what?”
The man seemed to give it some thought. “No.”
“No I don’t want a thick ear. I say, are all the questions going to be this strange?”
“I’m the one asking the questions, not you!”
“I know, but I want to know if they’re going to get any more interesting.”
“Right! From now on, you shut up, unless I ask you a direct question. Understand?”
“What did I just say?”
“You said to shut up unless you asked me a question.”
“So why are you bloody talking?!”
“You asked me questions!”
“I haven’t even started asking you questions yet, son!” He said nothing and the constable stared down at him. “Don’t have anything to say for yourself now?”
“You didn’t ask me a question, so I couldn’t respond.”
“I’ve had e-bloody-nough of this,” the constable said under his breath, “all right,” he said, pointing up at the wall, “first question – first real question – who told you you could build a bloody great wall here?”
“So you just thought you could come along here and do what you like, did you?”
“Well, you bloody well can’t! There’s rules!”
“Is it illegal to build walls?” He snapped his mouth shut. “Sorry,” he whispered, “didn’t spot that wasn’t a question.”
The constable could feel a vein throbbing in his neck. He ran a finger under his collar to loosen it a bit. “Listen, this here’s public land and the stones, they’re…well…public stones. You can’t just build a wall anywhere you feel like, can you?”
“But I’m not building it anywhere I feel like, constable. I’m building it here.” He pointed at the ground.
“This is common ground. You couldn’t very well build a wall on the green, fr’instance,” he added, borrowing a hypothetical from the meeting.
“Why would I build a wall on the green?” the lad looked bewildered.
“Why would you build a wall here?”
“Because someone has to!”
“Someone has to build the wall here. Obviously.”
It was quite obvious this poor boy was touched in the head. The constable decided reasoning with him was useless. “Let me make this as bloody simple as possible. Take the wall down, and we’ll say no more about this, all right?”
The builder looked stricken. “Take it down? No…no you can’t do that…”
“I will if I have to. This is an illegal wall.”
“No it’s not!”
“It’s built on common land without permission. That makes it illegal.”
“Why do you keep saying it’s on common land?”
“Because…well…because this is common land.” He paused. “Isn’t it?”
“No. It’s my land.”
“Yes. You don’t think I’d build a wall like this on someone else’s land, do you? That would be extremely impolite. It might block out their sun. Their flowers could die.”
“Well,” the constable said, scratching at his forehead beneath the rim of his helmet. “I suppose…I mean, if you do own the land, it’s probably okay. How can I be sure you’re telling me the truth though? Do you have the deeds in your possession?”
“Indeed I do.” The boy reached into the back pocket of his dusty trousers and produced a folded piece of yellowed paper.
The constable took it and unfolded it. He had to move it back and forth a bit to focus on the neat, cramped writing (having left his reading glasses at the station again), but eventually discerned that it was, as advertised, a deed for the land. It even said End Field on it. It was very, very old though. He pointed at the stamp at the bottom. “What’s this?”
“Mayoral seal,” the builder explained, “so you know it’s legitimate.”
“We’ll have to see about that. This is evidence.” He tucked the deed into his jacket.
“Keep it. I’m here now so it doesn’t matter.”
“Hm.” The constable surveyed the wall again. He wouldn’t have called it an eyesore, himself. He appreciated good craft, and this was undoubtedly that. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“I look forward to seeing you. Can I go back to my work now?”
“Yes. Yes, on your way.” He uncertainly watched the young man clamber up the wall’s face again, and then headed back to his bike.
In an emergency meeting of the parish council, the deed was passed around between the members, so each in turn could examine it. The librarian had also been invited along to offer her expertise. When she looked at the deed, she nodded knowingly. “Ah, as I suspected – clearly these runes are the scratchings of ancient Neanderthals. I suspect our new friend is a long-lost offshoot of that extinct race, carrying out primitive rituals as he piles ‘sacred stones’ atop one another.”
The vicar cleared his throat and the verger beside him gave a small titter. “I think, possibly, we should not let our imaginations run away with us. What we have here is a disturbed individual, who should be taken in and cared for before he does any harm to himself.”
“What makes you think he’s disturbed?” asked the landlord.
“Well,” the vicar said holding out a hand to the deed and giving a beatific smile, “to labour over such a convincing forgery…”
“Forgery?” The constable frowned. “What makes you think that?”
“Come now, the date alone raises eyebrows. How can a young man have owned this land for so long?”
“Maybe it belonged to his father…”
“And who would that be? Does anyone here recognise the name on that deed?” Everyone shook their heads. “You see then, it must all be a web of deceit. A stranger could not have lived among us for so long. If someone owned End Field, wouldn’t we know about it?”
“It’s a very good forgery,” the Mayor said as he was handed it. “The stamp looks exactly like the one I have sitting on my desk.”
“Did you approve this sale of land?” the chair asked, shocked.
“No no, of course not. This would have been one of my illustrious predecessors I suppose.”
The constable looked around the table. “Do we really think this is fake?”
“I don’t see how it can be otherwise,” the busybody announced primly.
“It looks genuine to me though. And, you see, if it is his land, I can’t do anything about it unless one of his neighbours complains. Since his only neighbour is a farmer who keeps sheep in the next field, I don’t think that’s very likely.”
“Then it can’t be his land!” the chair wailed.
“Well it is,” the Mayor said, handing back the deed to the constable, “this appears in order to me. It’s marked with the mayoral stamp of approval, all the details are filled in correctly. Frankly, it looks better drafted than most of the new ones I see.”
The chair was agog .“You can’t be serious?”
“I’m very serious.”
“So what are we supposed to do about this?”
The constable tucked the deed back into his jacket. “Nothing. His land; his wall. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.”
Soon, things settled into a routine and eventually no one much minded the strange goings-on in End Field. The builder would toil for days at a time no matter the weather, and then stagger back into the village, hungry and exhausted. He’d eat, sleep, pay his way with odd jobs, then return to his task and begin anew as diligently as ever. After a while, the landlord stopped asking him to do chores, since he’d become oddly fond of the determined, driven young man. So had his daughter, and she came to him quite often at the wall, perhaps bringing a packed lunch with her to share. The two would sit atop the ramparts – now rising high above the ground – and look down at the village.
“What happens,” she asked him one late spring day, almost a year after he’d arrived, “when you finish the wall? Will you go, or stay here?”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
She smiled over her sandwich at him. “What does that mean?”
“I won’t finish it.”
“I won’t live long enough.”
Her face paled. “Are…are you dying?”
The builder smiled disarmingly. “No more than anyone else is. No…what I mean is…well, I’ll be here as long as I live now.”
She beamed. “So you will want a wife then?”
It was a slow, strange sort of courtship, what with him being so focused on building his wall as he was. The months passed, and turned into years. The builder married the landlord’s daughter and the wall continued to grow. Stone by stone, layer by layer, until it stood tall and proud, a huge and formidable rampart stretching clear across the valley. Every stone had been scoured from End Field, ripped up with the builder’s own hands and carried to the construction site or, later, levered up with a spade and loaded into a wheelbarrow. He refused all offers of help, even from the landlord and his own wife. “It’s nothing personal,” he explained in his detached, calm way, “but I need to see it done right, the way I know it has to be done.” He had no plans of any kind, and yet he laid every stone perfectly, as if following some grand, intricate design. It became a wonder of sorts, and children – and not a few adults – from the village would come to watch him at work: one man, doing the work of an army. He grew tall and strong, with arms like tree branches, knotted with sinew and muscle. But the work took its toll to. He was out in the sun, wind and rain, and his face became tanned and weathered. His back ached and his fingers curled into stiff claws. Yet still he worked.
The old landlord died, and his daughter took over the pub in his place. Her marriage to the builder was happy enough, but even she never penetrated his secretive nature. He wouldn’t even tell her what the wall was for and, after a time, she began to resent its presence in their lives. The builder, for his part, took no notice. Life in the village continued as it had for generations. The centenary was long forgotten, the Mayor replaced with a successor, the constable reluctantly retired, the librarian still doddering along. The children grew up, and to them the wall had always been there, and they thought no more of it than the buttery, the church, the old mill or any of the other familiar landmarks of their home.
Once End Field was picked clean of rubble, the builder went to the new Mayor and the new parish council and asked permission to take some of the old stonework from the village. Only, he insisted, from places it wouldn’t be missed. By this time the builder was a great, monolithic figure in the lives of the villagers, and they couldn’t refuse him. He promised he would be careful. He went door-to-door, to the homes and shops where he seemed to know a piece of ancient masonry might be concealed. Of course, almost everyone had some, but still it was a tad uncanny, and noted by those who still watched the builder with suspicious eyes. From a chimney breast he chipped free a lump of stone that had been mortared in place since the founding of the village. From a kitchen floor he levered up a great slab that weighed so much it took four men to carry it out to the barrow. Those inconvenienced by his harvesting, he recompensed with chores, though few really minded. By this time, the desire to see the wall completed – whatever that might mean – was one seemingly shared by every villager. For the first time in over a hundred years, they were united by a strange sense of purpose, even though the builder still wouldn’t take any help.
Finally, the landlady, his good wife, decided she’d had enough. One day, without warning, she packed up her things and left the village. It sent ripples of shock through the other inhabitants. No one ever left the village! No one knew where she’d gone or if she’d ever be back. The builder carried on working, showing no outward sign of distress, but then that had always been his way.
On a cold, starry night, the son of the old constable – now constable himself – joined the builder on top of the wall. There was a ladder now, for the builder was no longer able to climb as deftly as he once had. The builder and the new constable had become good friends over the years. As a young boy, the constable had watched the wall go up, and now couldn’t imagine life without it. He watched as the builder laid down a layer of cement and began to slowly place the next row of stones atop it. Knowing what the answer would be, the constable asked, “Sure I can’t give you a hand there?”
“Sure,” the builder replied in his characteristically distant tone. He kept his eyes on his work.
“It’s a remarkable thing, to be sure. I know I’ve said that before.”
“It belongs protecting a castle, something like that.”
“It’s protecting something else. Or it will.”
The constable grinned. He was a lot more casual and friendly than his father had been, though he took his job seriously (not that there was any crime to speak of in the village). “Ah, now what would that be then?”
“When it happens, you’ll understand.”
The constable seated himself on the rampart and looked down at the bare earth on the wall’s far side. “I suppose that’s the great mystery in our lives, isn’t it? ‘Why the wall?’ It’s like an itch I’ll never be able to scratch. I’m used to it now but sometimes…sometimes…”
“It’s just something that has to happen.”
“As you say.” He looked at the rocks, at the way they fit together and how each that his friend placed seemed just right for where it was. “What happens when you run out of stones?”
“How do you know?”
“Because there are just the right amount.”
“How’s that then?” the constable said with a laugh.
“Where do you think they came from?”
“I don’t know where they came from…should I? I could ask the librarian…”
“It’s fine. You don’t need to worry. It’ll be done soon.”
Soon was a relative term in the village. The wall rose to its towering height, supported by buttresses and pillars and all manner of magnificent architectural techniques and tricks. It was a gargantuan black line across the horizon, now visible from anywhere in the village. Most people agreed the churchyard gave the best view. Those who’d been in charge when the builder first arrived were now mostly dead and buried. Their children had children of their own, and a new generation was being born to them even. The builder was old now, bent with age, his once-lustrous hair white. His body was gnarled like an old oak tree and his clothes hung from his spent frame. He doddered up the ladder, still working, still building, but now with aching slowness. Construction slowed to a crawl, but it didn’t really matter. The wall was just…the wall. If people had once wondered about its purpose, they no longer did, but instead accepted it as part of the landscape. Those who remembered a time before the wall began to die, filling up the churchyard one by one, in sight of the enormous edifice. One last piece remained, the builder told the parish council – a new, new parish council, made up of people who hadn’t been born when he’d first come to the village – and then it would be done to his satisfaction. The council readily agreed, until he told them it was the keystone over the entrance to this very village hall. He agreed, by way of payment, to cut a replacement, and engrave upon it a message for the villagers’ descendants. He was a master mason now, and even with his arthritic hands, he completed the work in less than three days. The old keystone he removed, and in its place put a shiny new one. On it were inscribed the words, ‘DON’T FORGET ME’. As if, the council all laughed at the opening ceremony, any of us could.
That night, the builder took the old keystone to the wall, climbed the ladder with it tucked under his arm, sweating and panting as he hauled his broken old body upwards. At the top, he set it to one side and took a moment to rest. He could feel his heart beating in his chest; its urgency, its frenetic panic. He was too old for this now. Or rather, he was precisely old enough. He could feel the spike of pain up his side and his arm, and he knew what was coming. He lifted the stone again, almost dropped it with shaking hands, but recovered and walked along the rampart. When he reached the spot he wanted, he set the keystone down carefully, running his gnarled hands over the faint, long-eroded writing on its face, and slotted it into place, where it belonged. Then he laid himself down on the cool stones and closed his eyes. By morning, he was dead.
A black melancholy descended over the village when the news was made public. The builder had always been there, in End Field, building his wall! What would they do now? Who would finish the wall? But it was in fact, the Mayor announced after surveying it, finished. There was not a single improvement that could be made. With his last breath, the builder had finished his mighty and mysterious task. There was something fitting, almost poetic, about that. He was laid to rest just on the village side of the wall, under a headstone carved by one of the masons who had learned all he knew by observing the builder. No one knew the date of his birth, or indeed much else beside his singular vocation, and so they simply carved upon it, ‘HE BUILT THIS WALL. WE WILL NOT FORGET HIM’. They couldn’t know that it wasn’t the builder they were supposed to remember.
Life went on. A few years later, the second centenary of the village was celebrated, with just as much pomp and ceremony as it had been a hundred years before, the day the wall was begun. Another generation grew old and died, and another and another, until all who had known the builder were gone, and he became nothing more than a figure of legend. The wall, still standing vast and proud across the valley, began to fall into disrepair. Rot ate away the mortar, ice cracked the stones, moss, lichen and funguses grew up from the soil and infiltrated its structure. Stone by stone, it was compromised. The memory of the builder lingered, and the villagers tried to repair some of the damage, but there were too many other things to do, and with winter’s snows, the project stalled, and was then eventually forgotten altogether. Another generation was born, grew up, grew old and died. The wall began to collapse. No one gave it much thought, but they began – in a perfectly natural way – to take pieces of it away when they needed their own building material. Their homes, those that had belonged to their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents, their great-great-grandparents, their great-great-great-grandparents and so on back to the founding of the village over two-hundred years ago, were also in need of repair. Year by year, the wall was plundered and demolished. First only the stones that had fallen were taken, but then people began to purposefully chip pieces free, treating it like an easily-accessible quarry. As the village approached its third centenary, the wall was in pieces, with great gaps rent in it and few stretches left intact. That which did still stand was overgrown and undermined.
When the morning of the celebration came, the day was as bright and clear as it always seemed to be on that day of the year in high summer. The bunting went up again, the parish council prepared a feast, a band from the pub noisily tuned their instruments on a makeshift stage, the Mayor prepared for his procession. At around noon, there was an ominous rumble from afar, like the sound of distant thunder. At first no one heard it, but it gradually grew louder and the villagers looked up from their revelry and frowned. “It can’t be thunder,” someone said, “there isn’t a cloud in the sky!” And so there wasn’t, and yet it continued, still rising in volume. It was like the huge rolling beat of a drum as big as a mountain. Cups and plates shook on the trestle tables, children burst into tears and called for their mothers.
Only one man saw it: the farmer whose land abutted End Field. He had to tend to his sheep, a flock that, much like the land, had been owned by his family for three-hundred years. He would join the festivities later, where he planned to thoroughly disgrace himself and at the same time make his ancestors proud by winning the cheese-eating contest again. But the cacophony that rose from beyond the lip of the valley made him look up from his work and then quail in terror. The pail of feed dropped from his hand and spilled across the ground. Across the top of the ridge came a great mass of black fur and the sound of pounding hooves. Hundreds of pounding hooves – no thousands – that bore enormous, shaggy bodies that moved faster than creatures that large had any right to move. They were huge, hairy and black, towering monstrosities that loped on two legs or four. Atop their thick, heavy heads were wide, sweeping horns. They had appeared as if from nowhere, and now they were bearing down on the village, travelling inexorably up the valley. He stared as the first wave of the stampeding monsters crashed into what remained of the wall. Some who were unfortunate enough to hit a stretch that was more or less intact were knocked back by the sudden impact. Their horns gored the ancient masonry, but the blows to their heads made them dizzy and confused. They stumbled back into the fray, some to be trampled by their fellows, others to wander off, dazed, into the woods. But plenty more got through. Where there were gaps, they surged through, into the bare End Field that was just a short walk from the edge of the village. Where the wall was weak, they ploughed through, shattering stones and reducing the structure to rubble that they trampled down into the topsoil with their mighty hooves.
The mass of fur and horns swept down, smashing everything in its path. The farmer himself tried to run, but the creatures were too fast and he was caught by them and crushed in moments. His sheep suffered the same fate, or were canny enough to flee and dodge the inrushing horde. His farmhouse was destroyed, all his fields turned into a mulch of stones, mud and manure. They splashed across the stream, collapsed the little bridge, knocked over the old mill, ransacked the buttery, annihilated the library, ran clean through the village hall, dashed the church to pieces and reduced the schoolhouse to a ruin. The revellers on the green had heard their doom approaching by now and many ran, but few were fast enough. The beasts were running amuck, driven by some ancient instinct to reach the other end of the valley, destroying whatever stood in their way. They shouldered through ornamental trees and threw their bulk at the stage and its terrified musicians. The green, like the fields further up the valley, was turned into a sea of mud. Houses, shops, monuments and people alike were crushed by the endless tide. Then, after that frantic, horrifying moment, they’d passed through, leaving only low moans, rubble and settling dust in their wake. Their charge carried them right down the road to the opposite end of the valley, and then they were gone, passing over the lip and disappearing. The sound of their passage faded to nothing.
Few had survived, and all that was left of the village were tumbled walls and heaps of debris. The Mayor, by some miracle, had been thrown clear and was still alive, if injured. The beautiful village was gone, perhaps forever, and so many families had lost loved ones that it was almost impossible to grieve for them all. Of the wall that had done precious little to defeat the rampage, only a few pillars and buttresses remained standing: a skeletal reminder of the awesome edifice that had once stood in End Field. The mayor did the only thing he could: he roused the survivors to bury the dead and rebuild their homes, just as they had once been. Standing on top of a pile of rubble, he raised his voice over the sobs and wails. “Let this be the day we found our village anew! Though we have lost much of what we once had – the library with our records is gone forever, the village hall with its memories of Mayors and parish councils past is destroyed, even the names of our ancestors carved into tombstones are lost – that won’t stop us from carrying on, just as they did!”
It worked and, slowly, year by year, they rebuilt the village. Stones they took from the wreckage of the buildings that had once stood, supplemented with the rubble from the wall where they could find it. But the stark spires that stood in End Field and the stones strewn everywhere, in some places embedded deep into the ground by the herd’s passage, remained untouched. The shattered villagers knew that the wall had failed them, and that it was best not to dwell on the strangeness of what had occurred. Dark superstition settled over the area, and no one claimed ownership of it. Life returned to normal.
A hundred years later, the village celebrated its centenary. The story of the founding had been lost, for none who had lived through it were now alive, and none of them had spoken of the events of that day afterwards in any case. The trestle tables were out, the band was tuning up, the Mayor waved from his carriage. A farmer settled down in a chair in one of the marquees to defend his cheese-eating crown. The landlord’s daughter laughed and danced. And, almost unnoticed, a young stranger arrived and pushed his way through the crowds. He went past the buttery, past the old mill, over the little bridge and thence to End Field, where the tall stone pillars, home now to roosting crows, looked down upon him. They had been waiting. He bent down, and lifted a moss-caked stone from the ground.