This essay appears in the Red Wheelbarrow Writers Anthology–So Much Depends Upon, now available from Village Books in Bellingham and other outlets. https://bit.ly/2x7KcBR
The Mason © 2018 by Jack Remick
So much depends on the tools. A worker without tools is like a myth without a ritual. The ritual drives the work, drives the man to complete the story. As with every ritual, the participants must know not just what to do, but when to do it, and as importantly, when not.
The farmer who plants his seed in the dead of winter cannot expect to reap his wheat in the August sun.
So it was with the stonemason who came to repair the ancient brick chimney of my house. Time and weather eat the brick, eat the mortar holding the brick in place. I knew it was time to smooth the wrinkles of age scored into the brick, but I did not have the tools, did not have the wisdom.
He arrived in his truck with his tools at 8:30 AM on a Wednesday in November. Wisdom is not in the tools but in the man. The tools let us see the man in the work.
He brought a ladder. He brought a mixer for concrete.
“Power?” He asked. I pointed to the power outlet on the lamp post by the driveway. “Water?” I showed him the spigots still under their winter caps.
“All right to mix here? I won’t leave a mess.”
Work. Mess. If you work, you understand the rituals of preparation.
Then from the truck came the tools–power cord, grinder, hoses, the trowels and scrapers, the chisels and the hammer. The Mason laid the tools out in an order. To the workman, the order of the tools echoes the order of the universe and the spine of the ritual is its order. Precision in the tools, as precise as the orbits of moons, as exact as the ellipses of the sun tracking its path through the cosmos.
The Mason then laid out the stainless-steel chimney cap in the mist of the morning.
It is not enough to be. You must be wise. Wisdom is always knowing what to do, when to do it, and why to do it. I remember the story of the railroad worker whose job was to tap the steel wheels of the railcars of the waiting train at the station. No one told him to listen for the dull thud of cracked steel. A man with a tool—the hammer—not knowing why, knowing only what.
Each tool has its meaning. I watched as the mason ground at the grout between the bricks, grout weathered by rain and ice and snow and heat until it rotted and the bricks had loosened and in their looseness had become conduits for destruction.
Dust—mortar dust, so fine it filled the air and seethed into the house. In the scent of ancient grout, there is only the odor of decay and death.
Tools. So much depends on the tools. Every tool as precise as the man.
Minutes and hours slid by before the grinding fell silent.
Then came the hammering. The hammer and the chisel then laid aside the Mason set the chimney cap with thin brick he had cut with the saw. He laid the brick onto the bed of grout. I heard the tapping of the handle of the trowel on the brick. And when the cap was sealed and the mortar set, the man locked the steel chimney cap in place and the sun blazed from it, stabbing the eye with its solar sharpness and he then stepped back to look at his work.
He knew it was done.
I told him, “Terry, you do magnificent work.
Had no one told him that he had saved the decaying corpse of time trapped in the brick and the moss and the grit?
I know that always before his recompense was only money. Clients paid him for his time, for his body, for his tools. But more than that they paid him for what he knew. He read the palm of weather and he knew how to fix the ruined and ragged residue of time.
But cash was not enough.
The wisdom of work, like all wisdom is temporal. There will be a time when the Mason will not go on to the roof with his tools because what he knows will no longer be needed.
Steel and glass replace brick and grout. His wisdom goes back in time to a time when the placement of hod was an art, art you see today in the older buildings, scarred and living deep in time.
His secrets will die the day those buildings come down.
I am thankful for the artof his predecessors living in the Mason.
Tools now hidden in the belly of the truck under a tarp the color of sand, the Mason said, “You know anybody needs their chimney tuck-pointed give them my number.”
I handed the Mason a piece of paper with his reward on it knowing that his work would last far longer than the cash. My house was safe because he knew how to use tools that would one day be useless.
In silence, I went back into my house where the faint odor of fresh grout clung to the air, the scent of a timeless ritual.