The keeper says: “You receive less food because you send less metal. If you want more food, send more metal. That is balance. That is honor. That is harmony in the universe.”
The lead supplier pauses, but there is a tension in the way he stands, the way he holds his hands up, that tells us there is more to the message. After several seconds, he continues sharing the rest of the letter, though it’s obviously with reluctance: “What you have suggested is an insult to the generosity we have shown you these long years. As punishment, rations will be reduced for the next week. Perhaps then you will better understand balance.”
I feel my jaw drop, and chaos breaks out. Shock and outrage fill everyone’s faces, and hands sign so fast that I can only catch snippets of conversation:
Reduced? We can’t survive on what we have—
How can we get more metals? Our miners are going blind and—
It’s not our fault we can’t mine as much! Why should we be punished for—
I can’t follow much more than that. The crowd turns on the lead supplier with angry faces, striding right up to where he stands on his makeshift perch.
This is unacceptable! one woman signs furiously. We won’t tolerate it!
The lead supplier regards them wearily. There’s an air of resignation around him. He doesn’t like the way things have turned out either, but how is he supposed to change them? What do you suggest we do? he retorts. When no immediate response comes, he adds, Everyone needs to get back to work. That’s the only way we’re going to survive. It’s like he says: If we want more food, we need more metal. Standing around and complaining won’t accomplish that.
This enrages one of the men standing near the podium. He wears a miner’s dirty clothes. I’ll go down there! he insists, face flushed red. I’ll make the keeper give us food.
Others in the crowd, caught up in the heat of the moment, nod in agreement. The lead supplier, however, remains calm in the face of rising hostility. How? he asks. How will you go down there? On the line? He pauses to make a great show of studying the other man from head to toe. Everyone knows the zip line can only hold about thirty kilos. It will fray and snap under your weight, and then we will have nothing. Your son might be able to make the trip. Perhaps you could send him to negotiate. He’s, what, eight years old now? That earns a glare from the miner, who’s very protective of his young son, but the supplier remains unfazed. Well, if you don’t want to risk yourself or your loved ones in the basket, you could always just climb down instead.
The lead supplier takes a rock the size of his hand and throws it off the edge, hurling it toward a bend in the cliff. We all watch as it hits the mountainside and is momentarily followed by a small avalanche of other stones, some of which are significantly larger than the original rock. They kick up dust as they fall down to depths we cannot see. The unstable nature of the cliffside is well-known throughout the village and has been documented in records for years. Some of our ancestors who could hear would attempt the climb, supposedly because their hearing aided them in knowing when avalanches were coming. But even they were wary about the cliffs.
Of course, then you face the risk of being crushed by falling rocks before you even get the chance to express yourself to the keeper. Anyone still want to go down there? asks the lead supplier, looking around. Unsurprisingly, no one responds. Return to your work. Get more metals so that we can restore the balance, as the line keeper said.
Slowly, the crowd disperses and everyone goes off to their assigned tasks, including Zhang Jing and me. As we walk, I think about what was said about balance and how we have no choice but to do what the keeper asks. We’re at his mercy—his and the line’s. Is that truly balance? Or is it extortion?
Zhang Jing and I arrive at the mines, and it is there we finally part ways. She waves farewell before disappearing into the darkness of the cavernous entrance, and I watch her go with a pang. This has been her post for a while now—going deep within the mines to observe the workers at their daily labors. Even though she stays well away from any situation that might be dangerous, I still worry about her. Accidents happen, even with the best of intentions. I’d switch places with her if I could, but the elders would never allow it.
I was recently assigned a post just outside the mine. With increased accidents and discontent over the food situation, the elders wanted another set of eyes to observe. My job is to keep track of the miners’ morale and any incidents that happen, as well as note the amount of metal being unearthed. My last post was in the center of the village, and this is usually a calm one by comparison.
I perch on an old tree stump off to the side of the entrance. It’s comfortable and gives me a good view of both the mine and the forested trail Zhang Jing and I took earlier. Near the trail, I notice a cluster of pink-veined white mountain orchids that are finally blooming. They’re cup-shaped and make a pretty spot of color among the mostly green and brown foliage surrounding the trail. Flowers rarely bloom up here, and I pass much of my day studying and memorizing the orchids, going over ways I’d depict them if only given the luxury to do so. Sometimes I dream up even more fantastical visions to paint, like fields and fields of orchids stretching out into a carpet of pink.
A blur of movement near the mine’s entrance draws my attention back to the real world. For a moment, I wonder if I’ve truly lost track of time and if the miners are coming out for lunch. That’s when my assignment is busiest. But no—it’s not quite midday yet, and only two men emerge from the entrance, one young and one old. Neither of them notices me, sitting out of the way on my stump.