A Pile of Rocks

Stephen Trussel

In those days I earned my lunch, and eventually a place to sleep at night, by doing odd jobs "for the church". (It was a big, beautiful Catholic Church, and it would have been the biggest church in town almost anywhere except where it was, which was in Paris, not far from Notre Dame Cathedral.) Usually I did things like repairing broken windows, or fixing electrical wiring that had been poorly installed, or plastering a wall, but that day the American priest had a different kind of job for me. He walked me over to an immense pile of rocks — someone had broken down a stone wall — and told me to move them to the back of the church courtyard across the street. I asked him if he had a wheel barrow, and he said that he did.

As I remember it, the pile of broken stone was as tall as I was, and I could hardly believe that he wanted me to move all of it by myself. It was still early in the morning, and the street I had to move the rocks across was beginning to fill with the morning foot traffic of Paris. I got the first load onto the barrow, navigated it down the path, down the two stairs, out to the curb and into the street. I had covered about a quarter of the distance, but I still had to manage the barrow up the opposite curb, up the stair, and into the courtyard. Once I accomplished this, the last half of my trek was a piece of cake. Soon I was rolling the barrow across the smooth packed dirt of the yard, to the back corner where the new rockpile would grow, and dumping the first load. "That wasn't so bad," I thought.

By lunchtime I had made many trips across the busier and busier street, and each time it went more and more slowly. My arms were aching and my legs didn't want to move. The rockpile didn't seem to shrink, although the one at the other end was slowly growing. The priest hadn't come around all morning, hadn't checked to see how things were going, hadn't offered any encouragement. Now, at lunch with the others, he still wasn't around, and someone said he was gone for the day. I returned to my pile of rocks.

"If I can just continue to move one load at a time, forever, I'll get them all moved." "Just down to the bottom of the walkway and then I'll rest." "I can't do it any more, I've got to give it up." "Why did he make me do this — there are so many jobs I could do which require talent." "I'll just quit now and walk away. I never really liked it here that much anyway." "Just get it across the street now, and that'll be it." "Ok, up the stair, why not?" "Well, across the path isn't so far." "Boy, I bet he'd be impressed if I really did move all these rocks, wouldn't he?" "I don't care what he thinks." "Okay, just get it down the path and into the street." "This street gets busier and busier, doesn't it?"

At four o'clock the others began leaving. My rockpile was clearly much smaller now, and I knew I could finish it by evening. It had become a kind of obsession. "I will move that pile of rocks." "I'll show that dumb priest. I'll show those rocks..." And it grew darker and darker, until it was night. The courtyard was filled with shadows, and I moved like a robot. By 8:00, the pile was gone, just dust and small fragments. No one was there but the old caretaker. I got a broom and the shovel, and cleaned the dust away until the pavement below showed no trace of the previous occupant. I started down the path with the last load, my legs shaking.

The next morning when I came by, the priest asked me to come to his office. "I thought I might never see you again," he said. "I didn't think you would do it." He said "would", not "could". "I thought if you would do that, and come back for more, I would have a more interesting job for you, and so I have. In one month, I have to go back to America. My replacement won't be here for three months, and so that leaves two months with no one to be in charge of this project. How would you like to take over my job?"

And I said "sure", and I did, and that is one reason why my life is as it is. Because of a pile of rocks.