It was on a mountainous Plateau suspended in the middle of an atmospheric sphere somewhere in the universe, with nothing but skies above or below. On this Plateau, a river twisted its wet way for hundreds of miles through rocky woods, before plunging over the edge in a waterfall that cascaded in frothy steam towards a never-ending sky nobody had ever explored. Along this river lived four tribes; Fire, Water, Earth and Air. They lived in their separate villages, each headed by a great and wise chieftain.
The tribes lived close enough to each other that they could trade their skills and their produce, but with enough distance that they were contended to live their lives in accordance with their own separate customs. The forefathers of the wise leaders had once signed a constitution, a single Ancient Rule that connected the tribes and yet honored their separate cultures:
The Plateau does not belong to the Tribes, the Tribes belong to the Plateau.
The philosophy, carved in rock and mounted at the top of the highest mound in the middle of the deepest forest, simply dictated that no tribe had any sovereignty over any part of the Plateau, including of course each other’s villages and property. Over time it had been simplified further, to something along the lines of “don’t fuck with other people’s stuff.” Living by this rule kept the competition between the tribes in check, it kept the trade open and constant, and it kept peace on the Plateau for generations.
Wake was the son of Great Tide, the leader of the Water tribe. Tide had been a firm and fair father who had loved his tribe almost as much as he had loved his son. Throughout Wake’s childhood, father and son had spent most nights on the river pier learning how to fish, or lying on the roof of the chieftain’s lodge shaping the stars and learning how to think. Once, when the young boy had asked his father why the ancient ancestors had carved out the Ancient Rule, his father replied, “The ancestors are in those stars, son. They already know the answers. But we don’t. That’s why we have the Ancient Rule. All we have to worry about is providing for our tribe, and our ancestors will do the rest.”
Great Tide had taken pride in preparing his son to succeed him, and when he lay dying he called for the young man and asked if he was ready for leadership.
“Everything you taught me, father, every single lesson, was that I must provide for the tribe,” said Wake, stroking his father’s soft and wrinkled cheek. When Great Tide’s soul left his body that night, the villagers strapped his remains to a pyre raft, and the river carried it to the waterfall.
Great Wake muddled along for a few years, doing his best to hop along in the enormous footsteps his father had left. Providing for the tribe was a hard job, especially since the women seemed to be on an extra fertile cycle and there were new mouths to feed everywhere. Perhaps there was something in the water. Thankfully, the Ancient Rule meant there would always be enough food; the Plateau provides.
One day Great Wake was walking downstream along the river, thinking while watching the water flow with him, as his father had always taught him to do. He came close to the village of the Earth tribe, and considered popping in to see Great Root, their leader. As he was contemplating whether or not it would be rude to turn up without a pudding or at least a bottle of something from his own personal cellar, he noticed that the village lay in a sort of basin-like dip by the river, creating natural flood plains. The Earth tribe had diverted the flood plains into an irrigation system, so the river would bring rich nutrients to their crops. As a result, their crops were bigger and greener than anything the Water tribe had been able to grow.
“Look at the size of those peas!” thought Great Wake. Pea and ham soup was by far his favorite meal, and his sister would make it with a handful of dried peas like tiny pebbles—but these peas!
He stopped suddenly. Why should the Earth tribe have better peas? Hadn’t they always worked on the principle that they were part of the same thing, that they were all equal custodians of the Plateau? Providing for the tribe was his calling, his father had taught him that. But his father had provided for the tribe day by day, why not provide for the future too? If the Earth tribe could use flood plains to grow better peas than the Water tribe, then surely the Water tribe could be a little inventive too? Contemplative, he wandered into the woods where he sat on a stump that had been gnawed out by a beaver and remained there thinking until dusk.
When he got home, Great Wake summoned a hundred tribesmen from all over the village, and the lads turned up dutifully, for the most part thankful to be leaving their homes full of screaming babies, even if it was for hard labor. He sent the lumberjacks and the carters into the woods and instructed the engineers to draw plans. The men worked through the night, sawing and hammering and building.
The dam was a majestic piece of architecture stretching across the wide river like a wooden rim of a bowl. It was not infringing on the property of any other tribe, and so it was not in violation of the Ancient Rule. The new reservoir was teeming with fish of all sizes, the constant silver flashes of scales made the water hiss and sparkle, and the Water villagers tied brand new nets and ate like kings.
Downstream, Great Root scratched his head. The river had been reduced to a pathetic dribble. It wouldn’t be long before the Earth tribe’s big juicy crops would suffer, and since their tribe had not yet learned to predict the weather he was unsure whether the rain barrels would collect enough to drink. He sent word to the other leaders of the Plateau Tribes, for in a crisis their wisdom and skill was always better combined…
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Featured image: Floating Mountains by JMattisson