I’ve been reading “War and Peace” lately. In fact, for the last couple of years. Or has it been more like three years? A long time, in any case, and during that long, long journey, I’ve sometimes encountered words totally unknown to me, words in my own language. Many of these have to do with different kinds of horse-drawn carriages or military gear used in the early 19th century. I should look up the meaning of these newly discovered bits of my native tongue, I know, but often I don’t. One that I did look up recently, or rather, Googled (who uses a physical dictionary these days?) was the word “paling”.
This word appeared around page 1080 of “War and Peace”, as the book is beginning to wind down. Only a couple hundred or so pages left to go! At this point in the story, Napoleon’s Grande Armée is evacuating Moscow, carting away troves of loot and herding along in its exodus hundreds of wretched Russian prisoners, including Pierre (Count Pyotr Bezúkhov), one of the main characters.
As this unhappy mass of militarized or subjugated humanity slowly pass through the Khamovniky quarter, one of the few districts of Moscow that had not been incinerated, Pierre’s fellow prisoners surge to one side of the road to look with shock at something at the base of a church.
Pierre also strains to see the object and learns it is “… the body of a man, set upright against the paling [around the church], with its face smeared with soot.”
Paling. I had to look it up. Turns out it’s a wooden fence made up of pointy tipped slabs. Or slats, if you will. Basically, a picket fence.
Now that the US is in the midst of a government shutdown over Trump’s border wall -- with the semantics being bandied around of what is and isn’t a wall, a steel-slat fence, a barrier, or a what have you -- “paling” seems a good word to know.
Maybe in his fitful dreams deep in the night Trump sees before him a concrete wall morphing into a fence morphing into steel slats morphing into a paling morphing into anything, anything he can point to and claim protects America. Anything at all. And I doubt it would bother him one bit if there's a dead body propped up against it. Maybe in his mind that's the only way you can know it's working.