Mo Lu’s story of how the kids saved the river.
Ping Ping had a strange dream that troubled her. It all started sweetly. She was joy-riding on a huge plum-pit along the river by the village. The plum came from her parents’ orchard. It was fun and laughter in the beginning. But when she sailed round the corner, the river suddenly disappeared. A great silence rang in her ears for the river’s music was gone. The plum-pit lay flat on the river bed, with dead fish, shrimp, crabs and weeds around. Ping Ping woke up, sweating all over.
For six-year-old Ping Ping, this river is a great friend to her, for no-one is as patient of her stories, worries and secret wishes. She also knows that the river is a great friend to the villagers for it waters their fields and orchards, washes their clothes and fills their pots and bottles. Ping Ping told everyone the river was her best friend although she knew it had a bad temper sometimes. Then the water-flow would run like wild animals. But mostly as people in the village said, ‘it gives us our fill’.
The next morning she went down as usual to have her morning chat with the river. She had come, of course, to tell her friend of the troubling dream. When she had finished, a voice rang: ‘That troubles me too.’
Ping Ping was startled, for she never expected the river could really talk to her, except as an echo in her heart. To make sure, she said: ‘That troubles you too?’ ‘Yes.’ The voice came from behind her. She turned and found an old man whom she had never seen before. The old man said he was her grandpa.
‘You must be joking. My grandpa is dead.’
‘Oh I mean I am your grandpa’s grandpa’s so many grandpa.’
Ping Ping listened and counted her fingers. ‘Then you must be dead many times.’
‘Oh hoh hoh, you are right, I am dead ...eh...let me see,’ now the old man counted his fingers, ‘I am dead about twenty times.’
They both laughed heartily. Ping Ping took a liking to the old man immediately. After all you don’t always meet someone who’s died so many times, and is so nice. They chatted and soon Ping Ping called him ‘Old Grand Old.’
‘So you are Old Grand Old! Father said that the first ever who lived here is old grand old.’ She was really excited.
‘Yes I am old grand old!’ the old man said calmly, and looked kindly into Ping Ping’s eyes.
‘Then why didn’t I see you before, old grand old?’
‘It’s because if I don’t talk to you, you won’t be able to see me. I belong to the world of silence.’
Ping Ping thought it’s a good trick to learn but she was still puzzled. ‘Why did you talk to me now?’
‘Something that troubles you also troubles me.’
‘Yes, some people want to take the river away. Some spoiled...kids.’
‘Oh, these must be the spoiled kids!’ Ping Ping thought to herself when, in the afternoon, she sat near the village hall and watched four men working on a wall painting. They were not actually working. They ate and drank, they shouted at each other, they fooled around with the paint, spilling it all over. There were only a few patches of blue on the wall while the floor and their clothes and faces were messed with the spillings and drippings. ‘Spoiled...kids!’ Ping Ping thought to herself once more.
And she was right. That same evening the four gathered the villagers in the village hall to make an important announcement. Their manner was no better than in the afternoon. Now Ping Ping knew that they were officials from the city. When all the villagers arrived, the oldest of the men started to talk. He made a long speech...
‘Eh..Mmmm...Ahhh...GRAAAANNNDDPPROOJE.....CT..OURLEADERS......Yehyehyeh....big......bath TUB.....RESERVOIR HA HA...century..........FLOOD stop PARTYLEADERSPARTYLEADERS...’
...that sent everyone to sleep. But when the fate of the river was mentioned, everyone was awake. The long and short of the story was that, to prevent flooding, the river had to be taken away. The river’s water would be stored in a huge reservoir. ‘In order to build this reservoir,’ now, all excited, the four men came up to the forefront of the platform in a performance style. Then they spoke faster and faster, they pointed and moved wilder and wilder, all in unison...
‘The mountain to the north had to go, CHOMP!’
‘The curve to the east has to be straightened, hoh ha ha!’
‘The cliff to the west has to go, BOOM,’ and many more....
Ping Ping looked at them and was very sad. But worse was yet to come. The spoiled kids, shouting at a high pitch, suddenly came to a stop and turned to the villagers and said in a heavy tone, word by word: ‘This has to go too. The village has to go too!’
The villagers whispered in each other’s ears. But they couldn’t ask some spoiled kids to make sense when some funny idea had popped into their heads, particularly when they had powerful fathers behind them.
Ping Ping could not sleep that night, neither could the villagers. While deep in thought, she began to feel a quiet commotion happening. Footsteps, suppressed noises, creaking doors and drawers, scratching rooftops. She was curious so she went to the drawers to get a candle. You can imagine her surprise when she found a wild rabbit there. When she looked around the room there were all sorts of wild animals, insects and birds. In the cow shed, in the pig sty, she found boars, boas and field mice. There were foxes and wild dogs in the trees, squirrels on the roofs. And the odd thing was all these animals were living in peace with one another.
Ping Ping met her father in the chicken coop when she went to check.
Father told her that the animals felt the danger and so they ran away. Last time, before the big flood, they ran like that too. And thanks to them, we were well prepared. But there was some difference this time, they came to us instead of going up to the mountain. They knew that it was human mischief and they hoped we could put a stop to it.
The next morning, Ping Ping met Old Grand Old by the river. He knew of the animal exodus already. Actually they could even see some of the animals on treetops and rooftops from the river.
‘What a wonderful sight! When did you last see humans and animals living so peacefully together?’ Old Grand Old exclaimed.
‘But I think that they’d rather stay home in the woods.’
‘They have no choice, my little grand.’
‘But we have!’ Ping Ping didn’t know what she really meant. But Old Grand Old’s eyes sparkled.
‘Like what?’ he asked gently.
‘Like we know, they don’t have to build that big bath tub...that reservoir, right?’ She paused to look at Old Grand Old.
‘....because Pap said we had our ways to prepare for the flood, like, the animals would warn us. And the river, she can tell us, too, when she will become naughty. I surely can hear that. Papa said if we listen hard enough, we can hear her mood.’
‘I wish those spoiled kids would listen to you, but they are now too busy playing with their model. Some people never learn until they suffer from their own mistakes.’
‘But that would be too late. By then, the river would be gone, we would have left this village...’
‘I hope before they get to make that big mistake, smaller mistakes can teach them to think better.’
‘Oh, I’m sure they make mistakes. Last night when they pointed to where to build what and what had to go, they pointed to all the wrong directions. If the reservoir was to be built that way, it would be an upside-down one.’
‘That’s our chance,’ Old Grand Old whispered to Ping Ping in her ear and she left with a smile on her face.
The next two weeks the four officials were very busy, and so were all the kids in the village. The officials were busy with the mural. It was a picture of the reservoir. The kids worked hard to pickle vegetables and fruits, dry meat and fish and make salty fish in order to preserve them. The older kids repaired their huts and made special arrangements. At the end of the two weeks the officials gathered the villagers in front of their big mural. The colour blue covered almost the whole wall, as if that were the only way to say how grand the reservoir was. From a distance it looked not too bad. But when the kids got closer, they could see holes here, cracks there that the paint didn’t cover. It was like an unfinished project. They had made the mistake of thinking that it would be better big than free of faults. If only they knew what was going to happen.
Again when the villagers gathered the oldest official started to make a long speech that put everybody to sleep, this time in broad daylight. Finally it came to the mural. They got excited again and ran from one end of the wall to the other to tell the villagers which end was what, naturally in all the wrong directions. At last, they concluded the villagers should praise the Party and the leaders for the great deeds they had done to them. They would be safe from floods when this GRANNND PROJECCCCT was completed.
‘No,’a small but clear voice came from the silent crowd. It was Ping Ping. ‘You chopped off the mountain in the wrong place, water will spill from there.’ She was pointing at spots on the mural while speaking.
The officials looked at her with unbelieving eyes, looked at the mural, then at one another. They were about to say something, but before they could, voices followed on each other: ‘The dam up there is far too low, oh hoh, when it rains.’...‘There are holes everywhere, I’ve never seen people so careless.’ As the children spoke their minds, the villagers nodded in agreement. They whispered with one another, then began speaking out to the officials.
The four officials were stunned. They had never been challenged, especially not by kids. They had no words to say. Embarrassment turned to anger. Then they started shouting.
‘You stupid.........knownothing.......good for you....................GRANPROJECT..........safe.........should praise........THE PARTY....’
As they were shouting they hit harder and harder with a stick pointer at the mural, as if to make their point stronger. The children smiled. What they expected was happening. Water began to seep through the holes and cracks, over the top of the painted dams. At first it was almost unnoticeable. Then it was like turned on taps. The villagers looked at the strange sight with wide- open eyes. Before they could ask, their children took their hands and ran into their houses which at this point turned to junks.
The officials were the last to realize what had happened. Now water was pouring out from the painted reservoir. They had to run for their lives. But their house was not a junk and they had to climb to the roof and shout for help as the water level rose every minute. Ping Ping threw them a sampan and hooked it to her junk. They climbed in and were safe now, though they couldn’t move about too much and they didn’t have a roof above.
The flood lasted a week. It was a flood that the villagers didn’t object to for it brought them hope. They had a good rest with their children and all the animals from the wood. They had enough to eat. Every time they had a meal, they threw some to the officials. The kids would say: ‘Enjoy your meal and your GRANND PROJECCCCCT!’
When the water finally receded, the junks became houses again. The animals bid the villagers farewell. The villagers and the children went back to their normal life. Nobody knew when the officials left the village. They were too embarrassed to be seen. Nobody knew if the officials had changed their minds. But there was hope.
Early next morning Ping Ping ran down to the river to meet Old Grand Old. He was already there. She told him what life was like during the flood. They both laughed when she talked about the officials cramming on the sampan. Then after a moment’s silence, he said in a low voice: ‘Ping Ping, my Little Grand, it is time for me to go. I have to go back into silence, and you can’t see me anymore.’
‘But why do you have to go? We are friends now. Aren’t we?’ Ping Ping asked sadly.
‘Yes, of course, we are. Still I’ve to go. I belong to the world of silence. But you can always talk to me, I am always around.’
‘How can I talk to you if I don’t see you?’
‘Oh, yes, you can. You can talk to the river and I can hear you. And you can hear me too if you listen hard enough. I am sure you will.’
Ping Ping was sad, but she knew she had to trust Old Grand Old. A last long hug, Old Grand Old slowly walked away. He turned around in the distance and said: ‘When I was small like you, I made a promise to the river. I wanted to be her friend, always. I kept the promise.’
Ping Ping lightened up. She thought for a moment and made the same promise to the river.
Mo Lu is the pseudonym of a teller of Chinese children’s stories and a Child of the Sixties
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
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