Stones from the Weeks-Long Walk

rural France
In naps, I dreamed of shins—of shins tilting up hills, of uphill climbs, of an uphill that endured until it tipped into downhill. In mud, I thought of water. Crossing water, I thought of stones. During the grand rain, streams were called rivers, and rivers were called floods. The water rebelled past the lines the tree roots had drawn for it. It spread past the edges of bridges, and in one forest, a fallen tree seemed a safer crossing than the footbridge. More than many things, I feared slipping a foot into wetness. The river rocks that you must hop across could be covered in slick moss, or your backpack could topple you. And if your socks soak themselves, how will they ever dry in this rain? Walking with wet feet equals blisters, and you can’t stop walking yet. And blisters can make you want to stop walking ever, but tomorrow you must wake and do what you do when you wake. In beds, I dreamed the verbs marcher and randonner, and they were not vocabulary.


People who aren’t carrying backpacks sometimes have kitchens of their own. Before this started, I had cabinets full of dry noodles, balsamic vinegar, just-add-water mixes, spices, canned three-bean-salad—how much did those cans weigh? I miss the way they would just sit there on their shelves waiting for me to get home or get hungry. Vegetables staying crisp in the crisper drawer, cucumbers and zucchini ready to throw themselves onto my cutting board, a suicide for the love of soup. My hand-drawn stick figures wouldn’t impress anyone—especially if that person were Renoir or a high school art student—but if I had a canvas and paint right now, I’d prop that canvas against this tree and make a still life in celebration of potatoes, and cauliflower, and chickpeas—foods that, last month, seemed boring.


Remind yourself that the weather does not need your permission, walker. Practice repeating The sun and the clouds are bigger than me. Expect to be soaked. That way, you won’t be disappointed when rain ruins objects in your “waterproof” backpack. Do not feel sorry for yourself about the little document you had hoped would be a souvenir when your returned home. Accept responsibility for not wrapping the paper in plastic. Remind yourself this destruction is small in contrast to bigger problems. Say, Someone’s house probably burned down this morning to make yourself feel better.

The rain may boss you around all day. You may both wake and fall asleep to the tune of rain, rain, rain on a barn roof, a music you liked in your former life of cars and the indoors. If you say, Dammit, one of the reasons you do so will be your three shirts. The gray one is dirty from yesterday. Because it rained, you couldn’t hang it to dry, so you couldn’t wash it either. The blue shirt is dirty from the (rainy) day before that. The striped one you wore to bed is what you will wear through the rain today, and it will reek, and you will be embarrassed in front of the French, who are civilized, and pronounce their graceful French r’s properly, and probably invented cologne. Even when you cloud yourself in your cheap body spray like the junior high school boy you used to be, you will still smell sweaty and soggy. The day’s song will go like this: rain, complain, rain, complain, complain, rain. And your “contribution” to the song will affect nothing—the sky already knows it part. Stretch a giant plastic bag over your backpack, which is not, to use the French word, ‘impermeable.’ When you try to make a joke of this word to a French grocer, you may gesture by curling the index and middle fingers of each hand, but he will not understand what you mean because in French texts, quotations are set off by two sideways V’s. Through the all miserable water, keep walking. Your air quotes of sarcasm are no good here.


First, unspool the thread. Prepare what you can before you grab the matches, because once you disinfect the needle in flame, you shouldn’t risk touching it to anything else. Strike with your right hand and inject the needle’s pointed end. Wait a second for it to cool, then, still holding it in the left hand, flip it over. If quick enough, you won’t have to waste a second match. Now inject the eye side. If it is your first time, you can tell whether any untouched parts remain because fire turns the metal darker. If the metal is already dark, you can tell yourself you’ve done this before so don’t get nervous when you thread the string through the needle’s eye and through your skin. Sometimes you can talk yourself into courage. Keep your hand slow and steady like Aesop’s tortoise as you glide it between the puffed, mostly painless outer layer and the sensitive layer beneath. When the water spills out, it may hurt, but push the needle to the other end of your blister until you have dragged the thread across the inside. Tie the ends of the string together, and now your Achilles tendon is a present with a bow on it. Blisters come when water fills the skin—and the resulting pressure is what causes the pain—now any new water will instead drip down this string.

Talitha-from-Manitoba—who just joined this path and today walks beside me like a gift—says, “I’m sorry I complained about my feet all afternoon while you kept quiet about yours. I apologize.”

I say, “Don’t.”

Afterword on empathy from the author: Apology to the Twitchy Woman Who Yells to Herself at the Bakery and Chants to Her Croissants and Coffee, I’m Gonna Eat Ya, Eachya, Dunk Ya, Dunk Ya All

The day I began to hate
my second grade gym teacher, he said,

Let’s play a game,
and tossed us red blindfolds. Still new

to knots and just learning
embarrassment, we fumbled, tied them

behind our heads. And I tried to cover
the sudden four-inch bald patch above my ear

the doctor couldn’t explain.
I’ll tell you all which barnyard animal you are.

And, easy as a paper airplane, he glided
around the circle. Donkey,

he husked into my ear. Now kids, crawl
on the floor and make your animal’s noise

until you find the others like you.
He blew the plastic whistle that meant

he knew best, and we all quacked
and neighed, and I ohnky-ahhed

and ohnky-ahhed around the sticky wood floor.
Maybe I was making the wrong sound. Donkey! I yelled—

but I heard only my echo in the bleachers.

I fell against a padded wall, covered the bit of exposed
bald patch until the teacher blew the whistle

and we untied our eyes to see his witty, unspoken joke:
I was the only jackass.

……….When I saw you by the window table
……….this morning, when you shouted, Dunk ya all!

……….about the croissant in your hand, when I laughed
……….at you above my coffee cup, I didn’t think

……….you’d turn around
……….and make me face what I was doing.

……….For a minute, I’d forgotten
……….that the donkey’s bray

……….is a swinging, loud-and-soft, metallic sound
……….like my deaf nephew crying in my driveway

……….after two neighbor boys throw rocks at his back
……….and his parents aren’t there

……….and I can’t sign a single word.

Note: This poem appears in Everyone at This Party Has Two Names (SEMO Press)

Brad Aaron Modlin is the Reynolds Endowed Chair of Creative Writing at University of Nebraska, Kearney. His book Everyone at This Party Has Two Names won the Cowles Poetry Prize, and his short collection of short stories—Surviving in Drought—won The Cupboard contest. His nonfiction has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Florida Review, DIAGRAM, and others. His work has been featured by On Being with Krista Tippett, Service Space, and