Memories: Tricks picked up from a riverbed

Deep in the Yunnan province of western China, there is a small town next to a large ear-shaped lake. Few people live in this town. If you’re lucky, you might be able to hear them. A candy-seller pushes his cart, shouting to children who don’t come. A fresh fruit stall that only sells durian, filling the streets with a pungent odor.

The town, originally built on wooden stilts, sat a few feet above the farmland. It had been years since any wood was used. The wooden stilts were exchanged for concrete pilings, and the wood plank roads exchanged for poured concrete. Houses built from wooden beams and hand-carved doors were torn down and rebuilt a week later with terracotta blocks and IKEA sinks.

Still, the ever-churning wheel of modernization couldn’t force the town to have structure. There were roads that led nowhere, houses only reachable by a trek through the wet farmland, and an outstanding lack of addresses. The farmers still woke up before the sun and stepped the three feet off the roads, into the farm. You couldn’t find a person who would turn on their lights at night, or someone who would use the faucet for water instead of embarking on an hour-long hike to the spring.

The young moved as soon as they weren’t ‘too young’ for the big city at the base of the lake. They were strong, lean, and healthy, leaving behind their parents with bent backs and withered hands. They left their legacy and their heritage for a chance at making it.

They misunderstood. And who could blame them? They weren’t even born when it happened.

The farmer’s bent backs didn’t come from farming, though I doubt that helped much. It came when the wheels of modernization targeted their temple. There shall be no worship, no gods, and no myths. There shall be no places of worship, no house of gods, no sanctuary of the storytellers. The temple was burned. You can still go there, if you’d like, though there’s not much left. A cracked shrine in the far corner and the sense that you shouldn’t be there. 

The temple was a place to tell stories, a place to preach the ideals that should inhabit every member of that town. It was a place to worship the local farmers who turned into heroes. It the place where they told the myth of a green river stone.

High up in the mountains above the lake, hidden in plain sight on a river’s edge, sat a green stone. Each year, men and women would go searching for this stone. They did it after another year of tightened belts and slim harvests. They did it when they were forced into a marriage. They did it when they felt they had no other choice. If they could find this stone, this strange stone, they all knew what it would give them. The power to change. The power to be free.

Sometimes searchers came back, but never successful, and never the person they were before. They all spoke of something happening on that mountain. Something that changed them. No one could put it into words. Some felt they were close to finding it, they could feel it calling to them. Some felt lost as soon as they left in search for it. Some wondered if the stone was even real.

As the years went by, fewer and fewer people went searching for the stone. Nestle moved in and began bottling the river water, and the young people were already gone, headed for Instagram stardom or H&M fashion.

But the gods don’t care. They continue whisper stories into the ears of the devoted, about river rocks with untold power. And for every searcher who dies along the way, their soul shall be offered in sacrifice to the gods.

They are heavy things, gods, laden down with knowledge and wisdom, and they had to be carried from one set of lips to another. As the farmers teach their children the lessons from the temple, the lessons of the gods, their backs will slowly straighten out as the weight is lifted. The children, disillusioned with the big world of superficiality, shall return home, in a hunt for a green stone. And one day, they too, shall bend.

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