Lawrence Russell

The Roman Wall

§§ There he was again on the path, this time ahead of me, walking in the same direction. An older fellow, so he lurched a bit, showed his age. Who was he? I didn't know. He was wearing the same jacket as last time, an old army issue. Warm enough I supposed, although I preferred a nylon fleecie myself, something a little more hi-tech.

I'd chosen this path for my daily exercise as it was seldom frequented, and because I wanted to stay clear of the walking group I usually went with. The path followed the old Roman wall or what was left of it over the headland and through the old plantation on the O'Neil estate, and why it was called the "Roman" wall is a mystery as the Romans were never in Ireland, far as I know. Perhaps it was because of the arches or gates that were here and there along the way as they were in the Roman style according to my fellow walker, McIvor. But what does that mean? We could call McIvor Roman because he has a so-called Roman nose.

I paused, caught my breath, took a look at the ocean, the big waves pounding the rocks, the rollers coming in all the way from the isles, maybe Iceland. Not a boat in sight, and the sky came down in a distant gray wall. When I looked back, the mystery man had disappeared, probably where the path goes into the woods. Maybe he was a drunk from the village -- he had that look about him. First time -- a week or two ago -- I met him near the lane where I'd parked my car. We passed without speaking, as he just looked straight ahead like a man in a coma. A bogman, I thought. If he could bang two rocks together and make a spark, he'd be a genius. Well, was I in a sour mood? Yes I was.

The walking group -- the five or six of us who'd banded together -- had become very annoying, mostly because of one person who tried to run the show. He was the last person in but the first to open his mouth about anything pertaining to our walks. We liked to walk anywhere there might be a bit of history: a dolmen tomb, a souterrain, a stone circle, a ruin... anything our land is famous for, yet is largely ignored by today's flat screen population. So there was a lot of driving involved in getting to these places, and shared expenses. McIvor had worked out an elaborate formula based on plus and minus against the miles travelled, and you know it was a lot of complicated bollocks that favored his situation. I said as much and he didn't like it, called me a fraud, a shyster, said I was trying to take over. Medium insults to be sure, yet insults nonetheless, very intemperate language for a man of mature age. As none of the others rushed to my defence, I thought why the hell do I want to walk with a group who passively submits to this bully? McIvor was a bit crazy, we all knew that. Anal-retentive, some would say, do say. He was a Mason, and what does that tell you? The Master of Time & Space. Smooth hands, wet lips, hoiky toiky anglais... honestly, he had ridiculous pretensions for a man with a titanium hip.

So this is why I was walking alone. I could get my exercise and my history quite nicely without any of them.

The wall petered out in the woods, where it had collapsed, overcome by the heavy trees and the overburden. I enjoyed this part, scrambling along the uneven path below the big gray trees as they shifted and moaned in the wind that was always coming off the ocean. But... what was this? Today there was another moan, and it was a man who was lying on the path ahead, as if he'd dropped from a heart attack. It was the Bogman with the long hair and the army jacket.

I canny keep it going, he rasped. I'm done for.

Mister, I said, what happened?

I, I dropped the stone, he said.

There was a large stone beside him, like the ones you can find on the beach near the village. He sounded terrible the way he was gasping. I took out my hip flask, lifted his head, poured a couple of sips in his mouth... but he just gurgled, closed his eyes as I let his head sink back. I took out my cell phone, but it was useless as we were out of range.

What were you thinking, carrying a heavy stone like that? I said... but no sooner were the words out when I saw a pile of similar stones near where the wall petered out.

Was he engaged in some plan to finish the wall? It seemed preposterous, yet what else could it be.

There were hundreds of stones, so he couldn't have carried them all, day by day toiling along the path by himself. It just wasn't feasible... and anyway, why?

How long have you been at this, man? I said.

Forever, he said. Two thousand years.

Two thousand years! A figure of speech, surely.

Then he said, beware of Sulla. Eram quod es, eris quod sum.

After this he faded, went still. I didn't know what to do, so I held my cell phone screen to his mouth to see if he was still breathing. No fog, no breath. He was gone, I was sure of it, so I hurried back down the path thinking I'd have to get help. It's a long, lonely way over the moss, a desolate place where you could lie for days, see no one except the sheep and the gulls, and the rolling veils of mist. All the way I was thinking, what did he mean, beware of Sulla? And his last words -- was he speaking in Latin?

As I approached the spot where my car was, I could see someone watching me through a set of binoculars, and as I drew closer, I could see it was none other than my foe McIvor.

Walking by ourselves now, are we? he said as I arrived.

What do you think, I said.

I think you'll be making a bogus expense claim to the Afton Ramblers, he said.

Are you spying on me? I said.

Not at all, he said. I'm just admiring the view... coincidentally.

Listen McIvor, I said, there's a man back there who needs help.

What man? said McIvor.

I told him about the Bogman.

Show me, said McIvor. Come on, let's go.

Shouldn't we call for an ambulance? I said.

If he's dead, he doesn't need an ambulance, said McIvor.

When we got to the woods, there was no sign of the Bogman.

I don't understand, I said. He was in a terrible state -- look, there's the stone.

I pointed. McIvor's expression was derisive.

You're telling me he carried this stone all the way from the village to here? he said.

And those ones over there, I said, indicating the pile. Well, perhaps there were others carrying them as well.

A legion of stone carriers? said McIvor. What a romantic notion. Those stones come from the wall. Been there for years.

I saw him carrying the stone, I said. He was staggering with the weight of it.

And where is he now? said McIvor.

I don't know, I said. He must've recovered.

You've wasted my time, said McIvor. You're a trifler, sir. I'm surprised we haven't received your resignation.

I know you don't like me McIvor, I said. For whatever reason. But tell me, you're a Mason, aren't you?

What of it? said McIvor. It's a privilege.

And your Masonic name is Brother Sulla, isn't it? I said.

He laughed, said, if it was, you would never know.

Meaning? I said.

Meaning the brethren keep their business secret, he said. And what, pray, has this got to do with anything?

I wonder, I said. I just wonder.

We stared at one another in mutual contempt. I looked at the pile of stones... in the settling light, they were dull and mossed, as if they had been there for years, part of the disintegrating wall. Maybe he was right.

Well, I'm leaving, said McIvor... and turned and headed up the path into the gloom.

That was fine with me. If the bastard didn't mind me behind him, what did I have to worry about? But I was tired from all the walking, the back and forth, the stress of the mystery man, the disappearance, McIvor, the humbling of it all, and laboured to keep up. Soon he was just a speck on the moss, blending with the wall, blending with memory.

A week or two passed, and one of the Ramblers phoned, told me McIvor had vanished, no one knew where he was, and who cares, good riddance to bad rubbish and all that, so why don't I come back, join the lads for a jaunt in Donegal. Etcetera. Well, while this was good news, it made me even more unsettled. Although I'd told no one about what had happened that day at the Roman wall -- the whole incident with the Bogman, then McIvor -- I was determined to try and find out what was what. There had to be some link between the two men, even though McIvor acted as if the whole business had been my invention.

It was raining lightly when I went and parked in the usual place. The smell of the sea was strong and I could hear the heavy roar of the surf. I had my binoculars, so I scanned the path and the wall where they crossed the headland... and there he was, lurching under the weight of another stone, just about to disappear into the hollow that leads to the woods. The army jacket, the long matted hair -- the Bogman. I put the binoculars back in the car and locked it, zipped up my nylon fleecie and headed for the path.

Then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, I went to the beach and picked up a rock, all smooth and shining as if an unseen stonemason had left it there for me. Yes, it was heavy, and I staggered to hold my footing on the sodden path that hugged the wall deep into the moss. Soon I was almost blind from the rain and my lungs raw from the exertion. But I hung onto that stone like a father to a child. Eventually I met the Bogman on his return, stopped, tried to speak him, but he brushed past me, lurching like an automaton, his eyes dead, a prisoner of his own death march. What was driving him? What was the purpose of it? I had to know. I had to know even if my back was killing me and it was all I could do to hang onto this stone. So I continued on, following the path, following the wall, more by instinct than design.

"I was what you are, you will be what I am" -- the words came to me as the gray trees came into view. Eram quod es, eris quod sum. My Grammar School Latin. "I was what you are, you will be what I am" -- that's what he said, the Bogman, when I thought he was dying.

Was I travelling some ancient road, already dead? Or was I just testing myself, as immortals must always walk alone.

LR Feb 5 2010