Jamie Zeppa is the author of Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan (Penguin/Riverhead USA, 2000), and Every Time We Say Goodbye (Knopf Canada, 2011).
I went to the lake today, I went with my grandfather. We climbed over the wall, we walked down to the shore. The water smelled bad, the smell hurt my eyes. In the old days there were fish and boats and waterbirds. Children swam in the water, they played on the shore.
I asked my grandfather, What colour were the birds in the days of the lake?
He said, Wear your mask, Lin, the pollutants are thick.
He does not tell the old days now. He says, Forget, forget the days that I told.
At night I remember, I do not forget. In bed I remember all the days that he told, the fish and boats and waterbirds, the blue water, the yellow sand, the children on the shore. Once I forgot the vehicles. The vehicles made food, it was cold food and sweet. Children ran to the vehicles to eat the sweet food. I did not know I forgot, I was not sad. Then I remembered, then I was sad.
Today I have fifteen full years. Tomorrow I will test into my work unit. I said to my grandfather, Teaching is good, I will test into teaching. My grandfather said, Your hands are small, you will test into the greenhouse.
My work teacher is Ben. Ben’s hands are small. He showed the brushes and the male and female flowers.
I worked in the morning. It was my first day in the greenhouse. My hands itched, my knees hurt. At school we learned the old days. In the old days bees did this work.
I said, At school we do not crouch and itch. School is good.
Ben said, The greenhouse grows food. The greenhouse is good.
I said, At school we learn and tell. At school we are not quiet.
Ben pointed to the okra flowers. He said, First rules.
I brushed the flowers. My hands itched, my knees hurt. I said, Fish lived in the lake in the old days.
Ben gave water to the beans. He did not say, First rules.
I said, People did not wear masks.
Ben said, The pollutants were not thick in the old days.
I said, The pollutants were not thick, the water was not black. Children played on the shore. I said, Small white flowers made stars in the grass.
Ben frowned. He said, Talk properly.
I do not like Ben.
Today my grandfather did not eat. He slept and slept. After work I climbed the wall. I looked at the lake. The pollutants were thin. I could see the old city. My grandfather told me the old days of the lights. The lights of the city drowned the stars in the sky.
When I am sad, my thoughts are improper.
My grandfather had twelve full years in the old days. Then the wars and epidemics came. His family was lost. The city went dark. The old days were gone. In the forest he found Village One and stayed. It had no wall, it got raided and burned. He found Village Two. It did not have good food, it had no filtration. He found Village Three. It had a bad man. My grandfather ran and stayed in the forest. Then he found our village. The elders were making the new language. They knew filtration, they knew greenhouses. My grandfather told the raid of Village One. He told the hunger of Village Two. He told the bad man of Village Three. He learned the new language, he learned the first rules. He helped make the wall and the greenhouses. He went to the dark city and brought back the filters. Now our village is safe, our village is good.
At school Teacher Jan told the old days. She said, The old language was bad. It was not clear, it was not correct. It made many problems. The problems grew large. No one could solve them. The new language is good. It is clear and correct.
I asked, How was the old language not clear?
Teacher Jan said, I do not know the old language.
I asked my grandfather to tell something in the old language. He did not tell. He has never told one word in the old language. He said, People will find the old language, then the old problems will come back. He said, The old days were bad and hard. People did not know the first rules. Animals knew, people forgot. Now the cities are dark, the waters are black. The animals are gone.
I asked, Where will people find the old language?
He said, The old days must not come back.
Today I talked properly. I asked Ben, What did your friend Pat test into?
Ben said, Pat tested into mechanics. She is at the filtration tanks.
I said, The filtration tanks are good.
Ben said, They clean the water.
There was nothing more to tell.
In school I did well in numbers, old days, food and water, health, recycling, protection, mechanics. I have small hands, I tested into the greenhouse. My friend Kim talks properly, she tested into teaching.
I asked Ben, Do you ever think what people called the city in the old language?
Ben did not answer. He gave water to the beans. He gave compost to the peas. He said, Did your grandfather tell the name?
I thought, Ben has thick tree-bark hair. When I am happy, my thoughts are improper.
I said, No, he has never told that.
Once I dreamed the old days of the city. I had seven full years then. In my dream the people had wings. That was the start of my improper thinking. Improper thinking and improper talk.
My grandfather said, There were no flying people in the old days.
In school, Teacher Jan said, Go to the corner, Lin. Say the first rules. Go to the corner, go to the corner. Talk properly. Say the first rules.
My grandfather said, Talk properly at school, Lin.
My grandfather did not eat food again today. He slept and slept.
I told Ben, I dreamed the old days once. It gave me a feeling. The feeling was flying.
Ben said, Talk properly, Lin.
I told, In my dream the people had wings. The people were skybirds.
Ben’s face was angry. He said, Say the first rules.
My face got hot, my eyes got wet. Ben touched my hand. He said, Let us say the first rules. His voice was not angry.
We said the first rules. Attend to what is. Do your work. Take no more than you need. Talk properly.
Ben asked, Do you need to drink water?
I went to drink water. I came back. Ben was planting peppers. I said, Now, what other improper talk can I think not to tell?
Ben said, Plant the peppers, Lin. I saw he was smiling, a very small smile.
There was an accident today in recycling. My grandfather did not come to the meeting. He sleeps and sleeps.
The elders said, Talk in your groups, find the mistake.
The dinner bell did not ring. I was hungry and angry.
I tied pieces of straw. Then I remembered kites. Kites were paper things on long strings. Children ran with kites in the old days. I could feel the wind taking kites to the sky. It was the dream feeling.
I thought of dew in the morning, I thought of drops on a leaf. When the sun dries the drops, the leaf forgets dew, the name and the feeling, it forgets it forgot. When the dew comes again, the leaf is sad to remember. It does not know how to know what else it forgot.
My thoughts were improper.
Ben was in the group beside mine. I saw he waved, a very small wave.
My grandfather died today. I cried and cried.
I remembered my mother and father. Redness covered their faces. They coughed and they died. I had seven full years, I coughed and I healed. I asked my grandfather, Why did they die? He said, All things that live must die.
In my chest was a feeling. I asked my grandfather, Why do things live?
My grandfather told the universe. It started from a seed. It grew clouds and stars. Stars broke apart, and planets birthed themselves out of the hot pieces. Cool water came. Microbes flowered. Fish grew eyes. Trees breathed in and out. Birds arose, skybirds, waterbirds. Animals sprouted. Humans unfurled. They planted cities. They looked at the sky and learned the stars. It took a long time, my grandfather said. It took 14 billion years. I had a feeling when he was telling. I was reaching, I was falling, I was big, I was small. I had the feeling I was flying.
We learned the universe in school, we learned 14 billion years. In school I did not have the feeling. I think the old language is the telling, not the words. In the old language, flowers are stars and leaves can remember, and all the things that are not can be told. My grandfather told the old days in the old improper language. Then he told me, Forget.
At the cremation people remembered my grandfather. They said, Elder Len knew the old days. He learned the mistakes of Village One and Village Two and Village Three. He helped make Village Four good and strong. In Village Four we have food, we have clean water. We have a wall, we are safe. We remember Elder Len.
I raised my hand to talk. I said, My grandfather told many things. I learned and learned. I will remember all the ways that he told, all the things that I learned.
After the cremation people said to me, You talked properly, Lin.
After the cremation Ben said, Let us go look at the lake. We climbed the wall, we looked at the lake. I remembered my grandfather. Ben held my hand.
Someday I will say to Ben, I like you, will you be my partner? You must test into it.
He will say, I like you, I will be your partner.
Then I will say, Do you remember all the days that I told? Do you know the colour of waterbirds?
The days of the lake are dark, the waterbirds are gone. No one knows their colour. That will be his test.