Old Ruins

by Layn Palmer (Univ. of Mount Union)


It was an old castle ruin no one wanted to see anymore, not part of the scheduled tour. Pockmarked stone walls struggled to stand straight. The weight of time seemed to press down on them while also sending moss creeping up along their curves and crevices. Trees grew all around the ruin’s perimeter, reaching for the gray sunlight above, and saplings had started emerging amid the maze of walls.

Kurt and his wife, Paige, had hiked through the forest on their own to see the ruin. Everyone else had wanted to eat lunch and go straight to the Rhine, but Paige was tired of people and wanted something more secluded. She stepped across the forest, listening to the sounds of birds above. Kurt stepped on a twig and snapped it. The birds quit their songs at the sound, and Paige turned to glare at him.

“Can’t you stay quiet?” She asked.

Kurt didn’t answer. He played with the camera slung around his neck, then gripped it till the lines across his knuckles went white. Just once, he’d like a thing to not be his fault.

Paige turned away from him and kept walking. They reached the outer wall of the ruin and walked around that, then up a slope to the top of a knoll where a tree with thick roots grew. What had been a castle was spread out before them. The stones of the basement were gone, swallowed up by mud and dirt and grass. The castle roof had vanished as well, revealing the walls in between, some of which stood straight and intact while others were fragmented or crooked or fallen completely, existing in varying degrees of disarray and tarnish. Two towers survived to watch over all the rest.

Paige pulled a pencil and a sketchbook out of her bag. Kurt thought of how they had met back in college. They had crossed paths often because the photography and drawing classes were in the same hall. She had been dainty then, pristine, and she drew pristine people as well; when Paige saw a person, and drew them, they became elevated, something separate from themselves, from the artist, and from reality.

“I’m going to find a spot,” she said.

“Okay, that’s good.”

They looked at each other a moment. Her white tank top clung to her from the sweat of the hike. The exposed skin of her arms and neck looked tan, stretched on her thin limbs, already turning leathery from smoking. Kurt thought she was young to have let her skin look like that.

She waited a moment, and Kurt tried to think of something to say, but she walked off along the edge of the ruin before he could. Once she was out of sight, Kurt rubbed his soft stomach and muffled a burp with his free hand. The hike had not treated him well either; he had not strained himself so much in years. He set off into the ruin after that, a different way than his wife.

His trail took him down the slope. The ground in the ruin was easier to walk than what he had hiked to get to the ruin in the first place. Nature reclaimed, but it reclaimed slowly, and there were still many flat spots nestled between the slopes and the walls. You could still see the vision of this place, even if the reality was gone.

Kurt heard birdsong and wondered to himself when they had started up again. He came to a waist-high wall of fallen stone and climbed over it with a grunt. He found himself in a clearing closed in by walls and buried beneath the shade of swaying tree branches. He took out his camera and began taking shots of the ruins.

Photos piled up in the camera’s memory. Kurt caught little rays of light sliding over walls, dust motes landing on moss, and the blades of grass swaying in the breeze around the rotting husk of what had once been a barrel, its metal bands sticking up from the earth like ribs. He scanned through the display on his camera, checking the recent photos, seeing something wrong in each of them. None of the photos made him feel like he was there. He lowered the camera gently so it dangled from his neck again.

Kurt carried on into the ruins until he was well and truly lost. He could not have pointed the direction his wife had went if he tried, but he didn’t mind. Kurt often found that getting lost was the best way to get good pictures; you had to be at the heart of a thing to understand it.

He wove through the walls of the ruins and climbed up and down slopes. He came to a section of the wall where windows still stood intact, all arranged in a row. Glass no longer filled the windows, but birds instead, dark blue ones with brilliant white tail feathers. The birds chirped and danced and cocked their heads when they saw Kurt.

Kurt smiled and raised his camera, but the birds flew off before he could capture them in a picture. They scattered in different directions, losing themselves in the green foliage above. A few feathers floated down to the grass in front of Kurt. He took a picture of the fallen feathers, but it didn’t look right; the feathers were dead and still. What the shot really needed was the birds in action, flying.  

“Dammit,” Kurt said, letting the camera drop. He wiped sweat from his forehead and paced a circle.

Kurt moved on, trying to soothe himself as he walked. He still wanted to catch the birds, but they kept just out of his camera’s reach. He followed their song at first, but they always flew away as soon as they saw him. Eventually they stopped singing altogether. In the silence, he looked to the treetops, hoping to see them moving between limbs and nests, looking for a way to catch the ruin walls and the leaves and the birds in the same shot, but any birds in the foliage were well hidden. He waited there a moment, standing perfectly still, thinking the birds might return. Nothing moved.

“This is ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” He turned his head toward a castle tower that still stood. “Maybe I need a new perspective.”

He ducked into the tower through a hole in its foundation. It was dark inside. Kurt blinked, shifted. Dust assaulted his nose and eyes. He coughed, then groaned. Thankfully, the spiral staircase leading up the tower was still intact in most places; only occasionally did Kurt have to jump or climb.

At the top, he poked his head through a trap door and climbed out into the fresh air. He leaned against the tower battlements to catch his breath and realized that the structure was swaying slightly beneath him.

“Oh,” he groaned.

He looked around and, once he was sure the tower wasn’t about to collapse, picked up his camera. The ruin sprawled out across the ground below. Before he had been trapped in the maze, now he looked down upon the map. All the paths were revealed to him, every turn and corner, every slight rise and fall in the ground.

He searched the map for the best frame, the best shot. Each part of the ruin held its special charm, but he still needed a way to capture the whole. Every shot Kurt took looked dead to him, even though he felt the ruins to be alive as he stood in them.

Just then, one of the birds Kurt sought broke from its place in the trees and flew towards him. It crashed into his ribs, forcing a yelp through his lips. He stumbled about the tower in confusion, head darting back and forth, preparing for more birds to fly toward him. Once he felt safe again and had caught his breath, Kurt rolled up his shirt to look at the damage. There was a red bruise forming where the bird had hit him.

“Damn birds,” Kurt said. He gritted his teeth. All he had wanted was a few pictures, something to show his wife that he was as good as her, that he was worth keeping around.

A rustle and a whisper interrupted his thoughts.  Kurt crept back up to the battlements and peered over the edge. A young couple had found their way into the ruins. They wore jeans and dirty sneakers. They were both tall and lean. The girl’s hair was frizzy from the hike, but the boy’s had fared a little better.

The girl giggled at something the boy said and pushed him. He reached for her and she jumped away, and they both started running through the ruin. He caught her near a wall and she leaned against it, his hands clasped around her wrists. A few birds flew low near them, singing happily, unafraid of the young couple.

Kurt raised an eyebrow.

The girl leaned forward and kissed the boy. They hung there together, attached at the lips, tied by their hands, trapping the world around them in a moment of stasis.

“Oh,” Kurt whispered. “I probably shouldn’t watch this.” He tightened his grip on the camera.

The couple tore at each other then: hands at pants, tongues in mouths, moans and sighs, loud enough to carry up to Kurt atop the tower. The couple got naked, quickly. They made love pressed up against the stone wall, and Kurt clicked away with his camera.

The couple moved and Kurt followed them with his lens, each shot a grope toward the perfect frame. Kurt changed the couples’ position in the photograph as much as the couple changed positions. He put them in the middle and on the right and up high, pairing them with different parts of the ruin scenery. Kurt smiled and clicked the camera shutter faster—his subjects’ skin turning red from blood rush and excitement and youth.  

Kurt stopped and looked through his camera’s memory. His finger hovered over the camera screen. “That’s the one,” he whispered.

He took one last look at the couple and saw them laid out on the grass, wrapped in each other’s arms, birds chirping in the trees, wind blowing gently and quietly. The girl lazily traced patterns across the boy’s chest.

Kurt looked back the way he had come, got his bearings, and decided roughly on a path back to Paige before climbing down the tower. He walked back with a smile on his face. The sound of birdsong faded the farther he moved away from the couple, but he didn’t mind.

On the way back, the beauty of the ruined castle struck him once more. Someone, long ago, had dreamed of this castle and through work made it so. The fact that it had fallen was immaterial.  

He found his wife perched in a tree branch along the outside of the ruin. Her pencil hung limply in her hand and her sketchpad sat on her lap. She looked over the gray maze with quieted eyes.

“Paige,” Kurt said. “How did drawing go?”

She glanced down at him, cocking her head slightly. “Fine.” She shrugged and jumped down from the tree branch, her hair flapping as she fell. “I got one done.” She thrust the sketchpad toward him.

Kurt looked over the drawing. He could see the places of brilliance and the places where time had taken its toll, in the visage of the ruin and the hand of the artist. The walls and slopes jumped out in soft black lines, shrouded in the light gray waves of lead that were Paige’s take on the filtered sunlight. But Paige added little by the act of drawing; the ruin was still a ruin.  

Kurt handed the sketchpad back. “It looks good.”

A slight smile twitched on Paige’s lips. “Thank you.” Her shirt had pulled up during her fall and she pulled it back down below her hips. “Did you take anything you like?”

“I have this.” Kurt held up his camera and showed her his best picture of the couple.

They made love in the lower right corner of the shot, framed by castle walls on the right, earth at the bottom, and forest on the left and in the sky. On the left side, one of the blue birds streaked over them toward the nothingness beyond the edge of the photo.

“I think I might call it Love Amid the Ruins,” Kurt said. “What do you think?”

Paige handed the camera back to him, scowling. “God, Kurt, that’s perverted. You should delete it.”

Paige turned away from him, beginning the hike back to the tour group. Kurt held onto his camera tightly, white lines returning to his knuckles, shaking a little, watching her walk away through the silent forest. After a moment he looked down at his camera screen and scrolled through the photos he had taken of the couple. His finger hovered over the delete option.

He shook his head and backed out of the camera’s memory, then followed his wife through the forest.