Genji’s village sat in the center of a great canyon. Red-tinged rock walls, sheer and straight, reached deep in the sky on all sides. So deep that Genji had never seen the sun glow orange as it sank into the earth or the stretching of a field or desert that gives way to mountains or water or simply nothing at the end, edging into blue or gold, melding this world with another.

Photo by Jamie Hagan on Unsplash

No, Genji didn’t know of those things, and neither did his father, or his father before him. They had all lived and died in the same acres of land, tilling, growing, tending to plants and animals, and paying their tithe to the men on the hill.

Genji, who liked to ask questions, dreamed of those things, though, and many more. He asked his father what lay on the other side of the canyon wall, but his father shook his head and smiled. “What does it matter?” he asked. “When all we need is right here, under our feet?”

To be fair, the canyon floor was sprawling and diverse. It seemed quite large and there was enough soil to vary planting by seasons, allowing nutrients to rest and replenish so the soil could be used to its full potential again. The sacred spring on the west side kept them supplied with water. Just enough for their crops and their dry mouths. Never more. They ate, they drank, they worked, they had families and animals who they cared for, and on the rare occasion, they slaughtered a cow and gathered for a feast of meat, something hard to come by in their entrapped existence. At these feasts, they danced and sang and worshipped, and they praised the gods for blessing them with just enough.

But Genji worried.

“What if the spring runs dry?” Genji asked his grandfather, an old man who enjoyed sitting by the bubbling water, watching it run. It gurgled out of the ground, rolling into a small pool, and lapped gently at the sides, creating a slick mud on its borders. “We’ll all die, won’t we? We can’t live without this spring.”

“The hill men wouldn’t allow us to die,” his grandfather said, and he looked up at the little city above them. A smooth, worn path, free of rocks or debris, led from their straw huts to its cobbled roads several miles away. Their cobbles led to the doors of great meeting halls and stone houses, painted bright reds and yellows. Genji had helped to crush the rocks that made the paint. His father had scolded him for using some of it himself, to draw a crude cow on a rock, a cow with stick legs and a crooked tail.

“Why not?” he asked. “They don’t know us. They are not our friends.”

“It is not out of love, young Genji, that they would keep us alive. What would they do without our hard work? Without our crops that feed them? We are the backs that carry their city.”

Genji stared up the path. The men moved like ants in their little town, crawling here and there, gathering in bunches and then dispersing, and behind them, a crack in the wall, a gap in the canyon like a missing tooth, led… where? Genji did not know, but it was assumed it took the men out into the beyond. The crevice was so narrow, it must only allow one man through at a time, Genji thought.

His grandfather rubbed his aching back and yawned.

“How long have you been looking at the water today, grandfather?” Genji asked, for his grandfather haunted the springs often, staring into the water as others stared into the jumping flames of a fire.

“Not quite long enough,” he replied.

Genji accepted the answer and continued his work, hauling buckets of water for the plants and the houses. He was a tall, strong boy with a lean, lithe figure and ropy muscles from hard labor. When he bent his mind to a task, Genji always finished it, but he was scolded daily because he didn’t bend his mind to his tasks as often he should. He asked too many questions, he made up stories, he explored when he should have been working. He’d been over every inch of their canyon, with the exception of the towering city. He hadn’t dared to go within a half a mile of its borders, but he’d watched it from afar.

When Genji’s thirteenth summer came, an uncomfortable, choking heat settled over the village.

The sacred spring bubbled only a little, barely providing enough to wet their dry lips and to feed the thirsty crops that grew, still bearing spoils, around the village. The plants struggled, but provided food enough to keep the people moving. Water was rationed and the old and the very young grew weak. Genji’s neighbor, Reslyn, a two-year-old boy, sickened and died. Genji’s grandfather stayed in the house, out of the sun, for a week, and Genji secretly shared half of his water ration with the old man, until the day he fainted. His mother made him stop, and his Grandfather, after complaining of an immense thirst, fell asleep one night never to wake again.

“Why?” Genji asked. “Why did grandfather die? If there had been water in abundance, and if there had been plenty of food, he wouldn’t have lost his strength.”

“It is not for us to ask why. Your curiosity is bordering on sinful, Genji,” his father said, and his mother agreed with a firm nod. Her long hair, braided and rolled into a bun at the nape of her neck, shone gold in the sun and the seeds she threw out to the chickens landed with puffs of dust.

“You heard the sermon today. We are the good people. The earthly people. Questions, for us, bring only unhappiness. Do you want to always be unsatisfied with your life, young Genji?”

Genji shook his head. He had heard the sermon from the city preacher, the only one of their lot that interacted with the people of the village, and it had only served to confuse him. The preacher, robed in white and carrying a small bottle filled with clear water, had told them to be happy with what they had, for they were the blessed ones. They who worked the land were the closest to God. And he urged them to rejoice in the deaths of their loved ones, because they were truly fortunate. They had gone to palaces where sweet-tasting water ran in rivulets beside pathways, where fruits and vegetables fell from plants that drooped under their weight and needed no attendance, where rabbits and deer ran plentiful, and plates of charred meats lined banquet tables, waiting to be eaten.

The priest had allowed each villager a sip from his clear water and declared them, again, blessed. And the villagers traipsed out to work in the fields while the priest made rode back to his city in the rumbling cart, carrying in the back piles of freshly harvested crops and buckets of water to the men who he claimed truly needed him, those prone to sin. The men of the city, who lived further from God than the youngest babe in the dusty canyon bottom.

Genji kept his mouth closed, but he couldn’t keep the questions out of his eyes and his father, frustrated, slapped him on the arm. Genji cringed away.

“But Papa,”Genji said. “Why does God want us to be unhappy? If he has all that waiting for us, why keep it away? Why give what little we have to those who already have more than us?”

“Do you not listen at all, Genji! We must toil now for our rewards later. We must prove our faith and obedience, so that we may be rewarded richly later on. We must help those who cannot provide for themselves, because they are too corrupt in their souls to see their wrongdoings.”

“You may think you are unhappy, son, but the people of the city,” his mother said, “they are the unfortunate ones, son.”

“Do not worry, my love,” Genji’s mother continued, calming her husband. “Rain will come soon. We will ask for it, and it will come, and we will drink long draughts from deep cups. And Genji will not wander off as he does now, because there will be so much for him here.”

His father went into the dark house, a cool retreat from the blazing sun, and lay down for an afternoon nap while his mother went to make preparations for an evening meal.

“Gather berries,” his mother told him noting his restless steps on the porch, “out by the wall. That will keep you busy.”

So Genji took a woven bag, looped over a sinewy shoulder, and went out to gather berries. He picked for almost an hour, but there was not much to be had. The berries had burst in the sun or shriveled and died away, and Genji was left with only a small handful for his labor.

“This is useless,” Genji said aloud to himself and he looked back at his village. It shimmered and danced, a mirage almost. But the city above, with lines hard and firm, looked real and accessible. He realized he had wandered close to it, closer than he’d ever been.

And he edged closer.

His eyes longingly searched the city for signs of life, for the people who lived so close, yet impossibly far.

A rustle in the bushes drew his attention away. A girl, a year or two younger than himself, at least, emerged from the bushes, her lips stained red with berry juice. She smiled.

“You’re one of them,” she said.

“One of whom?” he asked, swallowing his shock. She looked like the girls in his village, only better dressed, and weaker. Her thin arms, exposed to the elements, had never carried water or harvested crops. Her pale skin hadn’t spent days in the sun.

“One of the crude people,” she said. “One of the ignorant ones. That’s what dada calls you.”

She said the words with no ill intent, with the innocence of youth, and Genji nodded.

“I must be.” He said, his voice calm.

She smiled at him.

“Do you come from there?” He pointed with a berry-stained finger toward the clusters of buildings on the hillside.

She nodded.

“Tell me what it’s like,” he said, eager.

“It’s a boring place,” she said. “That’s why I snuck away. My brother told me the savages in the village lived exciting lives and I wanted to see for myself.” Her brown eyes glistened as she took in Genji’s thin cloth pants, which came only to his midcalf, and his long sleeved shirt, sewn by his mother, which protected him from the sun. The hat he wore, woven of thick straw, was rough and crude-looking, but kept his face shaded. She reached up to touch its brim, but was a few inches short. He bent his knees, and she ran her fingers along it.

“Is it true that you….” The girl bit her lip. “Is it true that you eat people? You’re cannibals?”

Genji, awestruck, laughed aloud and the girl jumped. “Eat people? No, no.”

He shook his head, trying to imagine such a thing. “Why would you think that?”

“My brother said so. He said that’s why you couldn’t live in a civilized society like ours. You eat people, and once you’ve got a taste for them, you can’t stop.”

Genji licked his lips and touched her thin wrist. “If that’s the case, maybe I’ll take you back and cook you up.” He pinched her skin and she squealed. “You don’t have much meat on you though. We prefer the fat ones.”

This time the girl laughed.

“There are no fat ones in your village. I watch you all the time from my bedroom window. I can see you all out working in the fields, leading the cows about and carrying buckets. You’re like little ants carrying food.”

“That we are,” Genji said. He liked the girl, even though she insulted him. She didn’t realize what she said was wrong.

“You want to know about me?” Genji asked.

“I want to hear a story,” she said.

“Ah, a story.”

So Genji pulled the child into the shade of the bushes, which grew taller as they neared the city, and settled into the dirt, crossing his legs. “I’ll tell you a story,” he said. “This one is not one I made up, though. This one was told to me when I was about your age.”

THE LAZY COW
One fair day in mid-Spring, when the sky was at its bluest, fluffy clouds grazed across its borders like sheep, eventually jumping the canyon walls, and a cow named Lala was led out to the fields by her master, a man named Izil. Lala did not like to work. She preferred standing in her shaded barn, or in the small lot behind her master’s house, chewing cud. But Lala had been trained well, and when her master buckled the leash around her neck, she followed his lead.

That day, they were to till the corn field. The sun was hot on Lala’s hide, and the dirt was hard, compacted, and stretched out for ages in front of her.

“We’ve got a long day ahead of us,” the master said, and he slapped the leather ties of Lala’s lead against her backside, urging her to move forward. She did so with slow steps, dragging the metal till through the dirt for an hour, struggling against rocks and clumps of roots in the soil, then she stopped.

“We don’t take a break until noon, Lala,” master said, and slapped her again with the leather. She stood still. She hadn’t worn out her muscles yet. She had energy in her large bones to spare, but she rebelled.

Why should I, she thought, pull this get up? Why should I, just because I was born strong, serve this man, and help to the grow the food for this village of people, who only share with me a small portion of it. There are many of us cows. There are many livestock. We could have our own lives and rule our own days.

So she stood, refusing to move, while the master cajoled and threatened and lashed her with the leather strips. He tugged at her and pushed at her, and yelled at her, but she stood firm. Finally, the master stomped away, leaving her in the empty field.

“And that’s the end?” the girl asked, her eyes wide. “The cow didn’t have to work anymore?”

Genji laughed.

“No, no. The farmer returned with other villagers. They slaughtered the cow and roasted her meat in the village square for everyone to enjoy. We all benefit society, one way or another.”

“They ate her?” The girl swallowed.

Genji nodded. His mouth felt dry after telling the story. He thought of the bubbling spring, barely producing, and he looked between himself and the city girl.

“Who told you that story?”

“The city preacher,” Genji said slowly, his thoughts on the preacher’s fine robes.

“Oh, the corral man.” The young girl smiled an ignorant smile, free of fear or repercussions. “He has a lot of stories about you.”

“The corral man,” Genji repeated, his voice cracking. “I bet he does.”

He thought he finally understood the story’s meaning.