The city of the White Digger
“Long time ago, the surface of this earth was spouting with green.” His voice dangled through the air. His face glowed in the orange light of the fireplace.
“Cities of great heights immersed within this sea of green. The houses were like towers, but transparent, and they shimmered within the grace of sun; while at night, the city was blessed with little shards of light, scattering throughout the surface, under the gaze of the moon. It was such a lovely scene to look at. The lights were like pearls, trimmed into the cities that never sleep.
“Yet ego and desire grew within humans. The humans indulged more into their lusts. They built even higher towers for themselves. They crafted wonderful machines that brought imaginations into reality. Their cities bloomed in glamour. Yet at what expense? They chopped down the trees. They burnt away the wood. The air was filled with foul smoke. The green was vanishing from the earth. Their wonderful machines turned the water black, as black as the scariest shadows at nights. More worse. They were never content. They always wanted more. They wanted money, beauty, power… And they fought for them… from the others…
“Out of greed, envy was born. And out of envy, they started to build weapons to fight among themselves. Their weapons burnt the earth. Millions lives were lost. Millions dreams were gone. In order to win the war, they created the most horrifying weapon, the Ragnarok. It was said the Ragnarok could break the world, and split the heaven. No one could stand in the way of the Ragnarok. Because of the horrifying power of this weapon, many hesitated to use it, except for that king at the land of dawn, which was a merely tiny piece of land at the rim of the world. Despite this, the king thought himself as the greatest of all, surpassing all other races. Therefore he thought he had the right to rule over all the others.
“One night, this king unleashed the Ragnarok into the starry sky. And the stars were blinded. The night was ravaged by the burning light. Clouds of smoke gathered, torching the earth asunder. The heat burnt all to ashes. The great transparent towers melted. The trees and plant vaporized. And the lights were gone, left but a barren world of dust and ashes. The water spring that moistened the world dried up and the lakes were no more. The cities were abandoned, left to rust within the smoke.
“The heaven found it too sad to look at the humans and it turned away from the earth. The sun and the moon hid behind the clouds and went to slumber for many years… Seven years, seventy years, seven hundred years and seven thousand years. And without the sun and the moon, the earth surface was filled with storms and hails. Streams and ocean were frozen in cold.
“While for the desperate humans, they fled underground. They burrowed deep into the earth, warming themselves by the lava. They made cosy caves for themselves. They planted mushrooms and kept pigs as food. They sealed the entrance to the surface, in order to keep the blizzard away. And thus the human lived there for seven years, seventy years, seven hundred years and seven thousand year. The memories of the surface faded in time: the life with the sun gracefully warming their skins; the night with the moon carved into the sky. Not many remembered those beautiful towers again. Not many could recall those green trees and flowers, so memories turned into dreams; dreams rusted into legends; and legends faded into myths.
“But even when myths started to forget themselves, a young man made it all came true. From all the ancient books, he read of these legends. He dreamt of erecting the beautiful towers. He dreamt of looking at the green pastures, or the merry little woodlands. Therefore he gathered up the people and said,
“‘We should dig the way up back to the surface.’
“When the others heard the word ‘surface’, the crowd dispersed. They all thought the young man was out of his mind. The young man continued to persuade the others, but no one listened to him, so the young man could only rely on himself. He resurrected the ancient machines from the ancient texts — the tome of Tubal-Cain, and he started to dig. With the help of the machines, he dug away the soil and threw it into the lava. Time passed quickly, and before he realized, he had thrown seven thousand tones of soil and rocks into the lava. Finally he managed to dig through the surface, but something flowed in immediately. He was nearly washed away. The current was huge and when it stopped, he held up his torch. The dim light of the torch shined on the ground. It was all sand! He carefully climbed through the tunnel and reached the surface.
“The light nearly blinded his eyes. He looked at the sky. It was blue and bright and for the first time, he saw the sun. He cast his sight back on the horizon. It was an endless sea of dune. And the hot sand simmered under the melting Sun…
Image from http://travelwithacam.com/sand-dune-surfing by Stas Kulesh
“There were no green, only yellow — yellow sand dunes that seemed to connect to the great azure sky. There was nothing but desert and the dune stretched towards the sea. Only by the coasts, there were some green palm trees. But in the desert? Only cacti with needle leaves that stung your eyes. The young man looked at the simmering heat of the desert. He removed his shoes and his bare feet sank into the sand. Was this what he always hoped for? He thought to himself. No! He wanted to see the green. He wanted to build the great towers! He never gave up, although he was now a middle aged man with a full grown beard.
“He learnt the way to find the underground water from the tome. Equipped with his digging machine, he started to dig again. Therefore he found water. He screamed joyfully when he saw the water flowing out of that dry soil. And soon he moved on to the next plan.
“From the ancient text, he knew the way to make glass from sand, so he built great forges to smelt glass. Using the glass, he erected grand greenhouses, where he planted different species of trees and flowers. The greenhouses protected the plant from the sand storms, and with the water, the site soon bloomed into an oasis. Birds started to come by, and animals came to seek water and shelter. He looked at this wonderful scene and smiled. Now his beard was already stained white.
“Humans are curious, after all. The news of the surface soon spread to the underground and many were curious of what the surface looked like. One by one they came out from the little hole the man dug. They saw the endless desert and were so disappointed. But wait! There is something shining over the horizon!
“People followed the light and reached the oasis the man built. All the people marvelled at the greenhouses. They were like those transparent towers in the old myths. And the trees and water, it was so much identical with the old legend! They continued to walk into the centre of the oasis. They found a grand lake there and many different species of animal bathed in the lake. There was also a rainbow over the sky. It was like a paradise. Then they found an old man sitting under a tree by the lake. His beard was white and shiny. His eyes closed and his face glowed under the sun. He was smiling and it was the most joyful smile he ever had.
“People took his cold body to the centre of the lake. His clothes were slowly drenched and he started to sink into the water. In honour of this old man, people started to build a city at that oasis, and named her Halem, the City of the White Digger.”
He picked up the hourglass and said, “Thus concludes the story of the White Digger and his city, Halem.”
And that was the first time I heard a story from him and I was only six. Jim was a traveller and a merchant. He went by the village twenty years ago and he could not find a place to spend the night. Our village was a small little town with a few houses made of metal scraps in the desert. In fact nearly the whole world is covered in sand since the breaking of the world. Only a few coastal towns by the sea are able to enjoy a bit moderate climate.
My papa welcomed Jim and let him stay in our house, which was actually a metal shack within desert. All the houses in my village were metal shacks. Only big cities like Halem, could afford bricks and glasses. I was always thinking about how to get out of this rat hole.
Jim always wore this scarf of blue and red strips, and he loved to wrap it all over his head. That day when he first came through that front door, he stared at me behind his scarf. His eyes were yellow, as sharp as the wolves. He slowly removed his scarf and I could see his little moustache and goatee. I was holding this little metal horse tight in my hand.
After dinner, we were sitting by the fireplace. I saw Jim took out a small hourglass and he said to me, “Want to bet? I can finish a story before all the sand at the top flows down to the bottom.”
And he won — I lost my little metal horse to him that day. Ever since, when he passed by the village, he would stay at our house and tell me a story. And every time, he would take out that small hourglass.
This book is a collection of just a few stories Jim told me in my childhood. They still bring tears and laughter to me. I do not want them to be lost. Perhaps one day when I am old and I open this book, I can find my childhood joy again.
© Paul Po Lo Chan August 2013
- 8 Reasons to Visit the Driest Place on Earth (Atacama Region, Chile) (urbantimes.co)
- Colour 1920s photo: green dress amongst the sand dunes (weheartvintage.co)