A Roman Spring

A story by Leslie Norris

I have this place in Wales, a small house set in four acres of pasture, facing north. It’s simple country, slow-moving. I look down my fields and over a narrow valley, green even in winter. I go whenever I can, mainly for the fishing, which is splendid, but also because I like to walk over the grass, slowly, with nobody else about. The place is so silent that you discover small noises you thought had vanished from the world, the taffeta rustle of frail twigs in a breeze, curlews bubbling a long way up

It’s astonishing the old skills I find myself master of when I’m there, satisfying things like clearing out the well until its sand is unspotted by any trace of rotten leaf and its water comes freely through in minute, heavy fountains; or splitting hardwood with a short blow of the cleaver exactly to the point of breaking. I’ve bought all the traditional tools, the rasp, the band saw, the edged hook, the long-handled, heart-shaped spade for ditching. After a few days there I adopt an entirely different rhythm and routine from my normal way of living. Nothing seems without its purpose, somehow. I pick up sticks for kindling as I walk the lanes; I keep an eye cocked for changes of the weather

We went down in April, my wife and I, for the opening of the salmon-fishing season. The weather had been so dry that the river was low, and few fish had come up from the estuary. ten miles away. I didn’t care. We had a few days of very cold wind, and I spent my time cleaning the hedges of old wood, cutting out some wayward branches, storing the sawn pieces in the shed. After this I borrowed a chain saw from my neighbor Denzil Davies, and ripped through a couple of useless old apple trees that stood dry and barren in the garden. In no time they were reduced to a pile of neat, odorous logs

They made marvelous burning. Every night for almost a week I banked my evening fires high with sweet wood, and we’d sit there in the leaping dark, in the low house, until it was time for supper. Then, one morning, the spring came

I swear I felt it coming. I was out in front of the house when I felt a different air from the south, meek as milk, warm. It filled the fields from hedge to hedge as if they had been the waiting beds of dry ponds. Suddenly everything was newer; gold entered the morning colors. It was a Sunday morning. I walked through the fields noticing for the first time how much growth the grass had made. From some neighboring farm, perhaps Ty Gwyn on the hillside, perhaps Penwern lower down the valley, the sound of someone working with stone came floating through the air. I stood listening to the flawless sound as it moved without a tremor, visibly almost, toward me. “Chink,” it came, and again, “chink,” as the hammer chipped the flinty stone. I turned back to the house and told my wife. We had lunch in the garden, and afterward we found a clump of white violets as round and plump as a cushion, right at the side of the road. They grew beside a tumbledown cottage which is also mine, at the edge of my field where it meets the lane. The cottage is called Hebron. It wasn’t so bad when I bought the place—I could have saved it then, had I the money—but the rain has got into it now, and every winter brings it closer to the ground. It had only two rooms, yet whole families were raised there, I’ve been told. We picked two violets, just as tokens, as emblems of the new spring, and walked on down the hill. Ruined and empty though it is, I like Hebron. I was pleased that the flowers grew outside its door. As we walked along, a blue van passed us, and we stood in the hedge to let it through. Our lane is so narrow that very few people use it—the four families who live there, and a few tradesmen. But we didn’t recognize the van. We heard the driver change down to second gear as he swung through the bend and into the steep of the hill, outside the broken cottage. We had a splendid day. In the afternoon we took the car out and climbed over the Preselli Hills to Amroth, in Pembrokeshire. The sands were empty; the pale sea was fastidiously calm. It was late when we got back

The next day was every bit as perfect. I got up in the warm first light, made some tea, cleaned the ash from the grate, and went into the field. I took a small ax with me, so that I could break up a fallen branch of sycamore that lay beneath its parent in the bottom field. Beads of dew, each holding its brilliant particle of reflected sun, hung on the grass blades. I pottered about, smiling, feeling the comfortable heat between my shoulder blades. Over the sagging roof of Hebron I could see the purple hills of Cardiganshire rising fold on fold into the heart of Wales. I listened idly to my neighbor, whoever he was, begin his work again, the clink of his hammer on the stone sounding so near to me. It took me a little while to realize that it was close at hand. I was unwilling to believe that anyone could be away from his own house on so serene and beautiful an early morning. But someone was. Someone was chipping away inside the walls of Hebron

I ran through the wet grass, reached the cottage, and looked through a gap where the stones had fallen out of the back wall. I could see right through to the lane. The blue van was parked there, and a thin, blond girl stood beside it, her long face turned down a little, her hair over her shoulders. The wall was too high for me to see anyone in the house

“What goes on?” I said. I couldn’t believe that my ruin was being taken away piecemeal. The girl didn’t move. It was as if she hadn’t heard me

“Who’s there?” I called. “What do you think you’re doing?”

A young man stood up inside the house, his head appearing opposite mine through the hole in the wall. He was dark, round-faced, wore one of those fashionable Mexican moustaches. He had evidently been kneeling on the floor

“Just getting a few bricks,” he said, his face at once alarmed and ingratiating. He waited, smiling at me

“You can’t,” I said. “it’s mine. The whole thing is mine—cottage, fields, the lot.”

The young man looked shocked

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve had permission from the local Council to take stuff away . . . They say it doesn’t belong to anyone . . . I’m sorry.”

“The Council are wrong,” I said. “This cottage belongs to me.”

I felt stupid, standing there, talking through a ragged gap in a wall three feet thick, but there was no way of getting around to him, except by walking back up the field, through a gate, and down the lane to the front of the house, where the white violets were. The thin, silent girl was standing almost on top of the flowers, which made me obscurely angry. I turned around and hurried off, alongside the hedge. As I went I heard the van start up, and Hebron was deserted when I got back. I opened the door. They’d taken the frames out of the windows, the wooden partition which had divided the little house into two rooms, and an old cupboard I had been storing there. I was incredulous, and then furious. I looked down at the floor. All my marvelous quarry tiles had been prized up and carried away. I could have wept. Nine inches square and an inch thick, the tiles had been locally made over a hundred years ago. They were a rich plum color, darker when you washed them, and there were little frosted imperfections in them that caught the light. They were very beautiful

I ran up the road, calling for my wife. She came out and listened to me, her obvious sympathy a little flawed because she was also very amused. She had seen me stamping along, red-faced and muttering, waving aloft the hatchet I had forgotten I was holding

“No wonder they vanished so quickly,” said my wife. “You must have looked extraordinary, waving that tomahawk at them through a hole in the wall. Poor young things, they must have wondered what sort of people live here.”

I could see that it was funny. I began to caper about on the grass in an impromptu war dance, and Denzil Davies came up in his new car. As far as Denzil is concerned, I’m an Englishman, and therefore eccentric. Unmoved, he watched me complete my dance

But I was angry still. I could feel the unleashing of my temper as I told my story to Denzil. “They had a blue van,” I said

“It was a good market in Carmarthen last week,” said Denzil carefully, looking at some distant prospect. “Milking cows fetched a very good price, very good.”

“Took my window frames, my good tongue-andgroove partition,” I mourned. “My lovely old cupboard.”

“I believe the Evanses are thinking of moving,” said Denzil. “Of course, that farm is getting too big for them, now that Fred has got married. It’s a problem, yes it is.”

“A young man with a moustache,” I said. “And a girl with long, fair hair. Do you know them, Denzil?”

“I might buy one or two fields from old Tom Evans,” Denzil replied. “He’s got some nice fields near the top road.”

“They stole my quarry tiles,” I said. “Every bloody one.”

Denzil looked at me with his guileless blue eyes. “You’ve never seen my Roman castle, have you?" he said. “Come over and see it now. It’s not much of an old thing, but professors have come down from London to look at it. And one from Scotland.” Kitty excused herself, saying she had some reading to catch up on. I sat beside Denzil in his new blue Ford, and we bumped along the half mile of track that leads to his farmhouse. I’d been there before, of course. Denzil’s farmyard is full of cats. After evening milking he always puts out an earthenware bowl holding gallons of warm milk. Cats arrive elegantly from all directions and drink at their sleek leisure

We left the car in the yard, and climbed through the steep fields to a couple of poor acres at the top of the hill. Although high, the soil was obviously sour and wet. Clumps of stiff reeds grew everywhere, the unformed flowers of the meadowsweet were already recognizable, and little sinewy threads of vivid green marked the paths of the hidden streams. Right in the middle of the field was a circular rampart about four feet high, covered with grass and thistles, the enclosed center flat and raised rather higher than the surrounding land. I paced it right across, from wall to wall, and the diameter was nearly seventy feet. There was a gap of eight or nine feet in the west of the rampart, obviously a gateway. It was very impressive. Denzil stood watching me as I scrambled about. Everything I did amused him

I took an old, rusty fencing stake to knock away the thistles growing on top of the bank and force its pointed end into the thin soil. I didn’t have to scratch down very deeply before I hit something hard, and soon I uncovered a smooth stone, almost spherical and perhaps two pounds in weight. I hauled it out and carried it down to Denzil. It was gray and dense, quite unlike the dark, flaky, local stone used for building my own cottage. And Hebron too, of course. I scored my thumbnail across it, but it didn’t leave a scar. It was incredibly hard. Faint, slightly darker parallel lines ran closely through it, and a small, irregular orange stain, like rust, marked its surface on one side. Denzil nodded. “That’s it,” he said. “That’s what they made the walls with. Hundreds and hundreds of those round stones.” My stone had been worn smooth and round in centuries of water, in the sea or in a great river. We were nine hundred feet high and miles from the sea or any river big enough to mold such stones in numbers, yet the Roman walls were made of them

“They’re under the road too,” said Denzil. “The same stones.”

I looked down from the walls of Denzil’s castle. It was easy to see the road, now that he’d said it. A discernible track, fainter green than the land around, marched straight and true, westward from the Roman circle, until it met the hedge. Even there it had defied nearly two thousand years of husbandry. Generations of farmers, finding that little would grow above the stones, had left its surface untilled so that the road, covered with a thin scrub of tenacious blackthorn, went stubbornly on. We saw it reach the road two hundred feet lower down, halt momentarily, and then continue undeterred until it was out of sight. I knew it well, on the other side of the narrow road. It was the boundary of my fields. I had often wondered why I should have had so regular a strip of difficult and worthless shrubs

“Just wide enough for two chariots to pass,” said Denzil. “That’s what one of those London men told me. But I don’t know if he was right.”

We looked with satisfaction at the straight path of the Romans

“I’ve got new neighbors,” Denzil said. “Down in Pengron. Funny people, come from Plymouth.” He looked gently toward Pengron, a small holding invisible in its little valley. “They hadn’t been here a week,” he went on, “before they cut down one of my hedges. For firewood.” He let his eyes turn cautiously in my direction. “Young fellow with a moustache,” he said, “and a fair-haired girl.”

“How interesting,” I said, with heavy irony. “And do they have a blue van?”

“Strange you should ask that,” said Denzil mildly. “I believe they do.” We smiled at each other. “Can you see,” Denzil said, “that the Roman road must have passed right alongside Hebron? There must have been a house on that spot for hundreds and hundreds of years, I bet.” He was right. The old cottage sat firmly next to the dark accuracy of the traceable road, its position suddenly relevant. Carrying my stone, I walked back through the fields to have my lunch

In the afternoon I drove over to Pengron. The house, its windows curtainless, seemed empty, but a caravan stood in the yard. The thin girl came to the door of the caravan, holding a blue plate in her hand. “Good afternoon,” I said, but she didn’t answer

I’ve never seen anyone as embarrassed as the young man when he appeared behind her. He jumped out and hurried toward me. “I know,” he said. “You want me to take everything back. I will, I’ll take it all back this afternoon. I certainly will.”

I felt very stiff and upright, listening to him. I could see all my tiles arranged in neat rows, six to a pile, on the ground. He must have taken over a hundred. He’d been at it for days, chipping away with his hammer while I wandered around in happy ignorance

“I can understand,” I said in the most stilted and careful manner, “that someone surprised in a situation as you were this morning is likely to say something, as an excuse, which may not be exactly true. But I have to know if you really have permission from the local Council to remove material from my cottage. If this is true, then I must go to their offices and get such permission withdrawn.”

He was in agony, his face crimson with shame. I felt sorry for him as I stood unbendingly before him

“No,” he said. “No, I don’t have any permission. It’s just that someone up the village told me that he didn’t think the old place belonged to anyone. I’ll take everything back this afternoon.”

I looked at my tongue-and-groove partition, my window frames. Unrecognizable almost, they formed a heap of firewood in one corner of the yard. Waving a hand at them in hopeless recognition of the situation, I said, “It’s not much use taking that back, but the tiles, yes, and my cupboard, and anything else you haven’t broken up.” I walked back to the car, and he followed, nodding vehemently all the way. I was glad to leave him. When I looked in at Hebron later on, the tiles and the cupboard had been returned. I didn’t enjoy myself much that day. It’s stupid to be so possessive. The old cottage is an unprepossessing mess, not even picturesque. I ought to have been pleased that someone was finding it useful, but I wasn’t. The lingering remnants of my anger pursued me through the night, and I was pretty tired next day. I took it easy.

I can’t think why I went down to Hebron in the cool of the evening. I walked listlessly down the hill, becoming cheerful without energy when I found a wren’s nest in the hedge. There never was such a place for wrens. They sing all day, shaking their absurd little bodies with urgent song. It was a good evening, cloudless and blue, a little cool air tempering the earlier warmth. I began to whistle. At quiet peace with myself, aimless and relaxed, I approached the cottage. When a man pushed his head and shoulders through the gaping window I was totally startled

“How much for the house, then?” he said. He withdrew from the window, and stepping carefully, reappeared at the door, closing it slowly behind him. He was a very small man. Despite the mildness of the evening, he wore his reefer jacket wrapped well around him, and its collar high. He couldn’t have been a couple of inches over five feet

“It’s not worth much,”I said. He pushed his tweed cap off his forehead and smiled at me, a sweet, wise smile, but incredibly remote

“No,” he said, “not now. Oh, but it was lovely sixty years ago.”

“Did you know it,” I asked, “all that time ago?”

“Longer,” he said. “More than sixty years ago. Since first I saw it, that is.”

He stood outside the house, his hands deep in his pockets. He stood very carefully, protectively, as if he carried something exceedingly fragile inside him. His breathing was gentle and deliberate, a conscious act. It gave him a curious dignity

“Know it?” he said. “For ten years I lived in this house. My brother, my mother, and me. We came here when I was five years old, after my father died, and I was fifteen when we left. I’m sixty-seven now.” We turned together to walk down the hill. He moved slowly, economically. We had gone but a few yards when he stopped, bent down, and picked up a thin ashplant. newly cut from the hedge

“I’ve been getting bean sticks,” he explained. “I’ve left them along the lane where I cut them, so that I can pick them up as I go back.”

We talked for a long time, and I warmed toward him. He was a great old man. We stood there, the evening darkening around us, and he told me of people who had lived along the lane in the days of his boyhood, of his work as a young man in the farms about us, of the idyllic time when he lived in Hebron with his mother and brother

“But there’s no water there,” I said. “How did you manage for water?”

“I used to go up to your place,” he said. “To your well. Times without number I’ve run up this road, a bucket in each hand, to get water from your well. We thought it was the best water in the world.”

Slowly we moved a few yards on, and the old man lifted the last of his bean sticks from where it lay. Then he turned, faced resolutely forward, and prepared to make his way back to the village, perhaps a mile away over the fields

“I’ve got to be careful,” he said. “Take things very slowly, the doctor said. I’m very lucky to be alive.” He placed his hand delicately on the lapel of his navy coat. “Big Ben has gone with me,” he said. “Worn out. He doesn’t tick as strongly as he used to.”

“Let me carry those sticks for you,” I said, understanding now his deliberate slowness, his sweet tolerance, his otherworldliness. He was a man who had faced his own death closely, for a long time, and he spoke to me from the other side of knowledge I had yet to learn

“I’ll manage,” he said. He bundled his sticks under one arm, opened the gate, and walked away. It was so dark that he had vanished against the black hedge while I could still hear his footsteps

In the morning I went into the field below Hebron. It’s not my field; Denzil rents it from an absentee landlord, and keeps a pony or two in it. There’s a steep bank below the hedge, below the old Roman road, that is, and Hebron’s garden is immediately above this bank. As I had hoped, the ground there was spongy and wet, green with sopping mosses. I climbed back up and into the garden, hacking and pushing through invading bramble and blackthorn, through overgrown gooseberry bushes. In the corner of the garden which overhangs Denzil’s field, everything seemed to grow particularly well; the hedge grass was lush and rampant, the hazel bushes unusually tall. I took my hook and my saw, and cleared a patch of ground about two yards square. It took me most of the morning. Afterward I began to dig

It was easier than I had expected, and I hadn’t gone two spits down before I was in moist soil, pulling shaped spadesful of earth away with a suck, leaving little fillings of water behind each stroke of the blade. By lunchtime I’d uncovered a good head of water, and in the afternoon I shaped it and boxed it with stones from the old cottage, and while it cleared I built three steps down to it. It was a marvelous spring. It held about a foot of the purest, coldest water. I drank from it, ceremonially, and then I held my hand in it up to the wrist, feeling the chill spread into my forearm. Afterward I cleaned my spade meticulously until it shone, until it rang like a faint cymbal as I scrubbed its metal with a handful of couch grass. I knew that I would find water. For hundreds of years, since Roman times perhaps, a house had stood there: it had to have a spring

I put my tools in the boot of the car and drove up to the village. If I meet my old friend, I thought, I’ll tell him about my Roman spring. I saw him almost at once. He stood, upright and short, in front of the Harp Inn. There was nobody else in the whole village, it seemed. I blew the horn, and he raised both arms in greeting. I waved to him, but I didn’t stop. Let him keep his own Hebron, I thought. Let him keep the days when he could run up the hill with two buckets for the best water in the world, his perfect heart strong in his boy’s ribs. I had drunk from the spring, and perhaps the Romans had, but only the birds of the air, and the small beasts, fox, polecat, badger, would drink from it now. I imagined it turning green and foul as the earth filled it in, its cottage crumbling each year perceptibly nearer the earth

I drove slowly back. The next day we packed our bags and traveled home, across Wales, half across England. □