The Solitude of the Earth

by John Vicary

My father turned to stone many years before I was born. I couldn’t imagine him any other way than how he was now, but the ladies in town assured me he had been handsome once. “You look just like him,” they always said. “Like he did,” they hastened to add, as if they worried that I would find resemblance to his granite form. I just kept my head down, embarrassed that they’d mentioned it in any case, but that was their way: always talking, always nodding to themselves behind their fans and the brims of teacups.

In the early days, I didn’t know that he was different from other fathers. He split the wood in the yard with one great swing of his arm and he carried every brick for the chimney without the need of a wheelbarrow. He didn’t heed the rain or the wind, and he never asked Mama for extra helpings at dinner. In fact, he sat at the table but he didn’t touch his food at all. He said grace and then listened to us talk about our day. He enjoyed the hum of the household more than he contributed to it. He didn’t speak at all, but his voice was the guttural grumble of gravel more soothing than any lullaby.

It wasn’t until I grew old enough to attend school that I saw my first real man. My friend, Peter, was helping his father dig a new well. I watched them labor under the noonday sun, their ropy muscles straining under their blistering skin with each shovelful of dirt. Peter needed a break after an hour of digging. His father stopped to take a drink and wiped the sweat from his brow. At the end of the day they’d managed a deep trench, but the job was as yet unfinished. It would take several days to complete at that rate. Weak, I thought to myself. My father wouldn’t give way to the earth. Never.

On the way home, I thought of how my father could plunge his fist into the dark dirt and pull back chunks of stone with his bare hand. He wouldn’t let thirst or heat or exhaustion keep him from his task. He was the strongest man I knew. At the top of the hill, I called for him. “Father! I—”

He was there, by the back shed, in the spot that he’d taken to resting between meals. He turned his head when he heard me, and I saw him, perhaps for the first time. A tall man, taller than most, he stood delineated in stark relief against the gathering red of August around him. When he rose to the full measure of his height, I saw that he could have lumbered over other men. His arms rotated in their rocky sockets and his feet braced for the impact of his bedrock mass. Even from a distance I could see the lichen furring his face where his eyebrows should have been and a poker of shame lanced my gut. He stepped towards me, but I held up my hand to indicate no… no. I’d forgotten why I wanted him in the first place. He began his slow process of disassembling in reverse until he was indistinguishable from a large mountain boulder sitting peacefully in the yard. I turned away.

Surely our father broke bread with us, and played with us, and tucked us into bed as other fathers did. Yet my memory was like cheesecloth and only seemed to trap certain remembrances in its filter and let others slip through the negligent weave. As we aged, my father spent less time inside with us and more time hunched in the shape of his stone self. I sought him less and less until I scarcely remembered he had been a man at all. It was only on those rare occasions when the ladies from town would ruffle my hair and comment on its color that I would think that he had been anything other than a chunk of mountainside immured in the lawn. By then I had grown too tall to need him, and I brushed off his influence as one brushes dried mud from their boot bottoms.

“You remind me of him, you really do,” old Mrs. deSoto said one day years later when I passed her in the street. We hadn’t been talking of anything in particular, and it seemed a rather awkward thing to mention. I’d been on my own for ages by then and hadn’t given him a thought in some time. I had a little daughter of my own to consider and I couldn’t be bothered muddying the waters of the present by dredging the past.

I frowned. “You must be mistaking me for someone else,” I said, shaking her hand off my arm, although in the small town there could be no mistakes of that nature.

“No, I’m certain. It’s in the eyes. He always had the most vivid eyes,” Mrs. deSoto said. “Yours are just the same.”

Before I could deny it, she turned the corner of Mason Street and was lost to view. Her words stuck with me for longer than I cared to admit. Was I so like him to even the most casual observer? I flexed my finger joints, but they remained soft and pliant. I checked the mirror each morning, but no telltale moss slimed my teeth. I was nothing like him. I was a man, and I wouldn’t give in to the solitude of the earth.

The day my mother died, I made the long trek into the hills to the old home. As I searched the rooms for any trace of life that I might recognize, I was struck by how much smaller it was than I remembered. The pictures still hung in their frames in the same places, the mantle still displayed the same careworn treasures and the bed was draped with the old quilt from my childhood. My mother had kept everything as when I’d left. My gaze was drawn of its own accord to the spot by the mulberries where I’d last seen my father hovering. Before my eyes could register the gray shadow, I closed them. I’d seen all I’d come for. It was time to leave.

As I made my way back home, I felt a stiffening in the tender tissues of my chest and knew how it started. I had become more like my father than anyone could tell.

John Vicary began publishing poetry in the fifth grade and has been writing ever since. A contributor to many compendiums, his most recent credentials include short fiction in the collections Midnight Circus, We Were Heroes, and Temporary Skeletons. John is the submissions editor at Bedlam Publishing. He enjoys playing piano and lives in rural Michigan with his family. You can read more of his work at