Sixteen stones stacked high as a man’s head, one upon the other, spindly and apt to fall in a hard wind, but it had been there for as long as the boy could remember. He liked looking at it, a reminder of the strength of perfect balance. How one could stand alone and survive.
He sat in a place on the rock where two shallow scrapes fit his buttocks, and where the shadow of the sixteen standing stones passed in its daily march. The boy half-closed his eyes and made his spine as straight as the standing stones, the pull of gravity precisely his center, an arrow into the earth, a resistance to the forces of all things human and natural, a perfect monument of the power of patient persistence.
The wraith-man appeared and the boy lost his balance. Panic spiked in him and the urge to run back to the village gripped him, but he thought of the wind and how the sixteen stacked stones resisted and held its center. He swallowed and breathed deeply, trying once again to make his backbone become a column of stacked stones.
“Twenty-four,” rasped the wraith-man.
The boy refused to look directly at him, but in his peripheral vision, he saw the wild gray hair, the bony body clothed only in a thin loincloth, the skin mottle and burned by the sun. He knew to say nothing to the man. He had been expelled from the village for a reason, though the boy did not know what the reason had been.
“Twenty-four,” the wraith-man said, and the boy clenched his eyes trying to ignore him. But a tendril of wonder entered the boy’s head. Twenty-four what? Involuntarily, he glanced at the wraith-man, who saw him and cackled with laughter. He jumped up and dashed to the sixteen standing stones, and the boy’s heart leaped in his chest thinking he would try to knock them over, but he stopped short and raised his arms up above the stones, caressing them without touching them.
“Twenty-four, there used to be,” croaked the wraith-man, as if he had not used his voice in an age. He sounded as rock might sound if they spoke, as the sixteen standing stones might if they suddently gave voice to the world.
“A council of priests, we were, three moons in the making,” said the wraith-man. He dashed from the stones and put his face close to the boy’s. The man’s face was filthy, with rivulets of less-filth streaking from where his eyes had overflowed and run. The boy, even in a paroxysm of recoil, wondered if the wraith-man had been crying.
“Twenty-four high, all from the sacred place. Twenty-four, not sixteen. Eight not here, half of sixteen. All from the sacred place. And they blamed me! Half of sixteen off the top. Half of sixteen.” He turned and looked at the standing stones, then ran to them and raised his arms as if feeling the missing stones.
“Did you take them?” asked the boy, surprised by his own voice. He had not inended to speak to the wraith-man. The elders forbade it. He was to be ignored as if he did not exist.
The wraith-man turned his eyes wide and flashing in the sun, his hair tangled and twisted in the wind. “Yes,” he said, his arms frozen in caress of the missing stones. “Want to see?”
He dashed away up and over a shelf of rock between two boulders, then turned to look back at the boy, who did not know what to do. What if the village banished him because he went with the wraith-man? He stood and looked around, his body shaking. He saw no one, but that did not mean they did not see him. Then he looked at the sixteen stacked standing stones and imagined eight more stones balanced perfectly on top, even greater grandeur for the forces of serenity. What if he could restore them? What if he could retrieve them from the wraith-man and make the stack higher than a man’s head? Would his back be straighter, stronger, balanced against even the force of his grandmother and his clan, the elders and the village? A rush went into his head, making his ears pop, and he nodded ot the stacked stones as if they had spoken to him. “Yes,” he whispered. “I will.”
He turned and followed the wraith-man, who scrambled over rocks to a hidden place with a shallow cave, a fire ring with scattered broken pots, and a column of eight standing stones, smaller than the others, but the boy saw clearly how they would fit on top. He crept carefully to them while the wraith-man crouched and watched, his mouth working from an O to a grin and back again.
The stones came to the boy’s waist and they gave a heat as if alive, and did they hum, or was that inside his head?
“Let’s put them back,” said the boy.
The wraith-man jumped up and stood beside the boy, fidgeting and rocking on his legs. “The eight back with the sixteen t make twenty-four!” He kept repeating it over and over. Until he had said it twenty-four times, then he looked at the boy and said, “Yes!”
They worked in the night to the light of a three-quarter moon, the boy imagining his grandmother calling and calling. They built a circling scaffold of wood and the wraith-man lifted the stones to the boy who balanced them on top.
“Balance,” said the wraith-man. “Center line. Perfect now. Be perfect.”
By morning, they had removed the scaffold and when the first light of morning touched the topmost of the twenty-four stacked standing stones, the village chief and the boy’s grandmother arrived, the entire village behind, and they stared without speaking until the chief dropped to his knees, the boy’s grandmother too, and they chanted glory, glory, glory to the sun god.