The Digging

by A. J. Perry, an excerpt from the novel The Old People (Thames River Press, 2014) 

And then it might occur that just when it seems to the Old People that things cannot get any worse–when it seems that nets can get no emptier nor the river any drier–things can in fact get much worse. That the rains will continue to not come–not just through the rainy months of this year but through the rainy months of many years. And that the wood carver in his search for his digging tool will have gone from one end of the river to the other–from the top of the mountain to the edge of the sea–without finding the digging tool that was buried. And that each of the knot makers is still holding to his own way of knot tying such that in time the knots will cease to be tied at all. And the waters will cease to flow. And the holes of the island can no longer be dug.

In time there will be nothing for the storytellers to see but midwives trying in vain to catch fish and people of the quarry trying vainly to carve wood. They will see hole diggers trying to cut trees and fishermen struggling to make fires and tree cutters using their cutting tools to bring unborn children from one life to another. They will see old women tying knots and children telling stories. They will see salt that is simple traded for salt that is sacred. And salt that is sacred traded for nothing in return. From deep within the caves they will hear the sounds of knots being tied to the wrong knots, by the wrong hands, in the wrong way–so that, in time, these knots will tell a story of ancestry and descent that is new and bold and different.

When these things happen the Old People will know that there are things befalling them that are not theirs. And that if these new things are left to age they will cease to be new at all but instead will become proper descendents of the older things. At this the Old People will ask the seeing man to come to the place by the river bed where the river used to flow. Because it is not good to make a request of a seeing man directly–or even to speak indirectly of things that cannot be seen–the Old People will never truly ask for the seeing man’s wisdom but instead will expect him to hear the many words not spoken. And when he has heard this request not made and is ready to answer this call not issued he will come to the place by the river where no rain has come and no water is flowing.

In the driest days of the hottest month the seeing man will sit on the dusty ground and pray to feel the things that only he can feel: the hidden waters that move deep below the dry mud of the river and the generations that have flowed for so long through the people of the island. Here the man will sit with his things for seeing–his pebbles and his carved idols and his sacred knots–and he will hold them between his fingers in the way that seeing men do. And in the deepest of all prayers he will pray to understand what it is about the ways of the island that has caused these new things to take place: why the rains have stopped falling; why the digging tool cannot be found; and why two knot makers sitting under the same knotmaking tree cannot agree on a simple knot that needs tying. By now all sounds of the island will have fallen away so that while the seeing man sits on the hot ground of prayer the Old People can wait in quiet silence for the ancient voices to be heard. The fishermen will have stopped their fishing. The storytellers will have stopped their wandering. Even the children of the island will be sitting without stirring and waiting with their parents for the unseen voices to come.

In deep prayer the island’s seer will continue to sit with his things for seeing and pray through the hottest time of the day when the sky is tall and the sun is at its peak, and he will do this through the coldest and darkest time of the night when the sun is down and the empty skies send the world’s cold into his bones. Without noticing the coming or the going of the light around him the seeing man will stay deep and heavy in his prayer with his eyes closed and his thoughts upturned and his hands resting gently on the things that help him see: the idol that was carved many years ago by the wood carver; the pebbles given gratefully by the people of the quarry; and the sacred knots–the many faithful knots tied in the ancient ways by the island’s eldest knot makers. And if after many days of prayer his prayer has been a worthy one the vision he needs will come to him like sudden rain; and here it will become clear why it is that so many new things have happened on the island: why it is that the rains no longer fall and the women no longer bear children. Why the holes cannot be dug and the fires cannot be made. Why salt is no longer traded and stones no longer given. Why the adze flies off its handle and the shadow fish go through the nets. Why the carved tool falters during use but the weapon remains straight and true. And why after dying from an improperly tied knot the old woman has been left to rot on the stone slab of her journey.

These new things are happening, the seeing man will explain, because other things have happened.

And here with his eyes still closed the seeing man will name the other things that have happened to bring these new things upon them. That a kwa plant has been cut without the blessing of the seeing man. Or a digging tool has been given to a hole digger who is not worthy of his art. Or the tree cutters, standing ready to cut down the old umbilical tree leaning out over the river, did not wait for the knot maker to complete his knot and began their cutting before its time–before the knot was fully tied. Or it could be that a young knot maker sitting on the periphery of the knotmaking tree once leaned forward on his wood stump and while trying to pick up the key turns of a knot looked directly at the knot as it was being tied. Or the cause of the new things might be something as distant as the improper tying of an old woman’s knot–that many years earlier a midwife holding out the adze maker’s child to a knot maker that would not come grew impatient, and that with no knot maker to tie off the girl’s knot of passage she took it upon herself to tie with her own hands this most basic of knots–the knot that separates this life from the other. It might be that a request for a digging tool was not made indirectly. Or that it was improperly carried out. Or that a hole was dug during the day. Or wood carved at night. Or trees incorrectly taken. Or fiber gathered before its time. Or it could be that the ancestors were not honored. Or thanks not given. Or prayers not prayed. It might be that words and fire were allowed to mix. Or knowledge given to someone who did not already have it. In fact it could be any of these things that has caused so many new things to take place. Or it could be all of them at once.

It is a very long river, the midwives might say while holding out the unborn child to a knot maker who will never come.

And very old.

Do you think it will rain tonight?

There are no clouds.

But there are so many fires to be made.

And stories to be told.

But what if the blood of this birth turns to dust?

It is not easy to dig a good hole.

At last the seeing man will set down his things for seeing and here he will open his eyes to the blinding sun. Against the impossible light he will open his eyes and as the wisdom of the generations courses through him like blood through umbilical cord he will come to see what must be done to make the waters flow once again. The waters will flow anew, the voices will say, and the plants will once again grow. Women will give birth and dying embers will glow to become fire and fish will go where they always go. All of this is sure to happen just as it has always happened before. Just as the waters have always flowed and the rivers have always flooded. But before any of these things can happen–before the holes of the island can be dug, before the fires of the world can be made–there is a thing that must first be done. Here the Old People will be listening for the quiet words of the seeing man:

To make the waters flow, the seeing man will say, there is a knot that must be tied.


A. J. Perry is a graduate of Northwestern University and Antioch University Los Angeles.  His books include The Old People (Thames River Press, 2014) and Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess (Glas, 2001), which was translated into French as Douze histoires cul sec: Un roman, je presume (Editions Intervalles, 2006).


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