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Epitaph

On November 17, 1991 a message came from the office in Sana'a that there was a family emergency and to phone my sister in California. That was impossible inasmuch as the nearest phone was about six hours away by 4-wheel drive vehicle. I asked them to phone Stormy and get the details. The next morning they radioed and said that Dad was in the hospital, unable to speak, and the doctors had given him four to six weeks to live. I knew immediately that it wouldn't be that long.

I took a walk after they gave me the news, just climbed over the bandit berm surrounding the camp site and headed out into the strange country.

The camp was on top of the high central plateau, near the heads of two gorges, waadis in Arabic. I wandered about a mile to the southeast and found myself on a ledge of limestone which looked out over a valley. Below there was a village, probably two miles away from the high rimrock where I was standing.

The ledge came to a point. A few hundred feet below me was a narrow waadi, running roughly north-south, with high vertical walls. Its boulder-strewn bottom was green with brush and small trees so there must have been spring water running underground.

I don't remember actually thinking about what I was going to do but it suddenly seemed fitting that I build a cairn. They are not uncommon in Yemen, though the significance of the ones I saw in the countryside were a mystery us, the farangi — foreigners. Perhaps they memorialized someone as well. Spontaneously, I began to build a monument to my father.

I picked a flat place near the edge, where one can look out over the country but also down into the narrow, rocky waadi, which is an isolated and starkly beautiful place. I put up a half-dozen courses of large rocks, narrowing the structure as I went, until it was about four feet tall. Then I sat down and scratched onto a piece of flat grey limestone:

+ + +

JACK
HORTON

1915
1991

I broke down as I scratched the epitaph. As I placed it in the hollow in the heart of the monument I cried aloud, my voice coming out in wails for I knew in those moments that I would never see him again.

I cried more as I searched for rocks to finish but the tears finally stopped and I went on about the last several courses of the work till I found a large flat caprock and put it in place. Then I found another, small rock which was flat on two sides. On one facet I scratched three small crosses then set the rock on its bottom facet, facing it toward the east and the rising sun.

When I search my feelings for my father he is somehow mostly associated with our lives in Nevada. Yemen is very much like Nevada. So in this impossibly remote place, so far from where he lay at the moment, I did all I could do. It was very little but, then, so are the rest of our works here on this earth. But it was something. I did it out of love, respect and sorrow, the three emotions I associate most with the man.

I pray for clouds of angels to care for him and have no doubt that my prayers are answered. I hope that after he left us one of those angels took him to see what was made in his memory. It was a work of the hands, something he respected for he was a man molded by work.

I think that he will like the site, I am convinced that it was a gift from God to us in our sorrow.

It is as distant and as alone as he was in much of his short time among us. But it is also very near a green and hidden place in that strange, sunblasted land. The searing sun will find it every morning when the weather is clear, which is most of the time, to bathe with light the memorial and its trinity of small crosses.

And when cometh the rainy season, the season of the resurrection of the desert's life, I promise you that there is a place at the monument's foot, in the hidden waadi, where he can hear the greatest gift in that land — the sound of precious water falling in abundance. A gift from God for all his thirsty people.

 

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Jon Horton

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