Written in sporadic intervals during my first few days in Auckland. This is quite a long short story (~3500 words), but please do give it a go!
In a far-away kingdom, a boatman has a dream that may just change his life…
A Dream Full of Leaves
The idea came to the boatman in a dream full of leaves. Inside his head and outside his boat’s only window, leaves fell through the kingdom’s Autumn winds. The leaves outside his window hung tentatively on the riata trees or nestled on the frosted ground. The leaves in his head settled in his watery thoughts.
Leaves are crushed, said his dream. That is how they end, because they only grow on land. If trees could grow on water, their leaves might float through the seas forever. Instead, they hang from their branches, awaiting that single fateful twist that sends them spiralling to the floor. And there they stay to await their destiny. Crushed by the bright-red boots of laughing babies or the oily shoes of men in suits. Crushed by the paws of dogs or the hooves of cows. Crushed by spinning wheels and left to crumble as the bicycle or the rickshaw recedes into the dazed mid-morning skies. Crushed, always crushed.
That is what his dream said. And when he awoke that morning at the age of fifty-nine, the dream stuck, as if brandished across his brain. The rest of his night’s thoughts swirled away in wispy clouds, further and further with each sleepy blink, so that capturing each thought was like capturing love in a dying relationship – maybe it never existed? Just one thought remained. Crush the leaves of the riata tree. So he did.
Chang sprang from his bed a man possessed, rocking the boat as he made the leap to land in near darkness. The riatas had strewn their leaves across the fields where he was moored, a mellow purple carpet that crunched beneath his bare feet. He stood in the early morning air, his toes and breath icy, and his house-raft still creaking as it bobbed in the still waters.
The fragrance was all around him: a strong woody sweetness laced with bitter cherry and smoke. He had noticed this smell for years and never placed it; certainly it was unique to this river mouth and unique to Autumn. Now he knew, now he had solved it in a dream. How many other solutions lay trapped in the world of dreams?
In all the waterways across all the kingdom, the only place the riata tree grew was here, on the delta of the River Anatha, just before the estuary settlement. Here the great river bled its last, depositing its coveted rocks directly into the boat people’s dams. The delta was famed for its rich mineral streams, transported over weeks from the heart of the mountains through the marshy foothills all the way to the sea and the very edge of the kingdom.
But maybe all along there had been another, unseen richness, one unique to the delta, in plain sight and yet untapped.
Crush the leaves of the riata tree. Somehow Chang knew that it had to be now, that the Spring and Summer leaves would yield no taste, just as they yielded no smell. It had to be now, in the strange medicinal laboratory of Autumn, as the leaves fell and crisped and crinkled, as they turned from green to purple, as they smelled of foreign perfume and nectar from flowers long extinct.
He knelt and gathered each one carefully, choosing as a builder would choose his planks of wood, aware that one rotten log could sink his ship. He strained his eyes in the morning gloom, picking only those leaves with a deep purple and with vibrant veins; a hint of brown was a hint of death. Some fell limp in his hand or cracked into dust, these he squeezed in his fists and scattered wide. Finally, he breathed each leaf in deep, discarding any that did not fill his nose with scent. He continued in this methodical way until his fists were full. For a moment, his hands were leaves too, all brown wrinkled skin and dull veins. He laughed as he realised he would have tossed himself aside.
The ancient house-raft moaned as Chang settled himself aboard, as if unused to its occupant’s early morning exertion. Now that Chang had entered his twilight years, he was not expected to contribute much and accordingly he contributed very little. Usually the sun would have a bird’s eye view by the time he began his day’s fishing, but not today. Today the sun was an upturned bowl on the flat horizon and its light was mere milk in the dark waters.
Today he would find purpose again. Today he would smile for the first time in a long time.
Today he had risen early to cook.
The one tiny room on his boat served as both bedroom and kitchen. The conversion took time. He started by rolling up his mattress, the bamboo slats knocking together as he secured it to the wooden wall. After this, he assembled his tiny stone table from the tiles stacked in the corner of the room. He retrieved his equipment from the one small cupboard: a wooden chopping board, a dull metal knife and a large metal bowl. Outside on the open raft, he took his left sandal and dipped it into the river. The warmth of the rising sun spread across his chest.
The rain-soaked wood that formed his roof was too low for Chang to stand so he positioned himself cross-legged in front of his stone table, riata leaves now piled beside him. He cut them into pieces, and then again, and then smaller still. He imagined himself a mapmaker, dividing the kingdom into regions, and the regions into townships, and the townships into hamlets. Which tiny fragment of leaf represented the estuary settlement? On which frail square of plant did he and all the boat people live?
He stopped cutting only after the hamlets had been divided into houses, and the houses into floors, and the floors into rooms. He scooped up every last room and sprinkled them all into the bowl before him so that it was brimming with purple confetti. Gripping his sandal tight, he squashed it down into the bowl, pressing and scraping and pulverising. He crushed the leaves until they could be crushed no more, and the aroma filled the boat many times over. Now the sweetness made him salivate and the complex bitterness brought tears to his eyes. Now he could almost see the smoky smell that wafted from the bowl in waves.
He dipped his finger into the purple paste and put it to his lips. It was like nothing he had ever eaten before. It tasted like a dream of leaves. Inside his cupboard was a rack of spices and herbs. He hesitated, then left it untouched. Instead, he went back outside, stood up on the wobbling raft and jumped back to land.
All that day, Chang crushed leaves. He filled his empty jars and, when he had no more, he emptied his other jars and filled them with the riata paste. From a vantage point downstream, you would see a house-raft moored against the fields, bobbing gently, and writhing towards you, mysterious spice streams in the current. A ribbon of cinnamon, a ribbon of saffron, a ribbon of sage. Chang jettisoned everything he could to make room for his riata.
He worked through the day and sank to sleep in exhaustion, his frail body shaking through a dreamless night. The next day he rose with the sun still invisible and began crushing again. He couldn’t explain why it was so important, except that his dream had told him what to do. He worked like a man still in that dream, as if he had could will his long-lost vitality back into being, as if there were no consequences to his mania.
On the second day, he ran out of jars so he filled his washing bowl.
On the third day, he turned his cupboard on its side and filled that as well.
On the fourth day, he filled his sandals, and then there was nothing more to fill. Upon this realisation, he collapsed and lay quite still among the sun-drenched fields. All around him lay his discarded riata leaves, the ones that had fallen but fallen short. His clothes, his palms and his soles were all stained purple, and even his face was streaked with paste.
The wooden boat had turned into a floating riata store. Chang wished he was aboard, but he hadn’t the energy to move himself. His body ached as if he was a hundred years old and his job had been to hold back all the tides. He slipped out of consciousness in total satisfaction, and slept with the bliss of a man who has fulfilled his duty with honour.
A scout party found Chang two days later, and a nurse stayed with him until he was strong enough to steer his boat back to the settlement.
Ji was almost as old as Chang and had seen too much stupidity for one lifetime.
“What in the seas did you think you were doing?” she accused him once he could stand.
Chang’s voice croaked slowly into life – it was weeks since he had last spoke. “I made something,” he said.
“I can see that,” the nurse replied. Her eyes deliberately and reproachfully scanned the endless collection of riata.
Chang saw now how ridiculous it looked. Rows and rows of buckets and boxes and bottles and jars, all filled with the same shining purple paste.
“Taste it,” he said.
Ji shook her head. “You didn’t drink enough water. Where’s your water supply?”
Chang gestured to the water bottles tied up in one corner. They were filled with riata.
“Did you eat?” she asked.
Almost ruefully now, Chang stared at his small collection of pots. They were filled with riata.
“Good gods, man! Did you fill your brain with this paste as well?”
“Taste it,” he said again.
She huffed and turned to the nearest container, which was filled with riata. Cupping her hand, she spooned the paste into her mouth. Shortly she shrugged.
“It’s confusing,” she said. “And it’s too dry.”
Chang stared at the woman who was trying to excrete all over his dreams. “Let’s not talk any more,” he said.
“As you wish,” Ji agreed, and the two of them floated back to the settlement in silence.
Once the seas had been filled with boats. The land dwellers would stand on shore and look out to sea and in the distance would be a city of masts and sails. The boats themselves were the horizon. They would rope themselves together, absorbing more and more boats as they sailed, a whole civilisation drifting in harmony atop a salt-laced world.
Eventually the unity snapped and the ropes were severed. Cultures diverged and fractured. One castle of boats would break away and war another. Life at sea changed, until you would no longer sail towards a forest of masts in hope, but turn from one in fear. Many boatmen made their way to land, chasing a dream of cultivating farms and building a settled life, one that did not rock from side to side. A life of stability. A life of peace.
The sea settlements adapted too slowly. By the time they accepted the need to trade with land-dwellers, they had shrunk to barely a tenth of their prime. The century storms dealt them a further blow, sinking entire cities and driving more to the land in fear. The remaining boats were forced further inland, into shallow waters and estuaries and marshes. They became tied to the ground. Their culture diluted in rivers and streams. They married farmers and became farmers themselves. Eventually soldiers came from the towering capital and declared them part of the kingdom. They were given orders and they were taxed and they were no longer part of the sea.
The estuary settlement on the Anatha Delta was the only boat city Chang had ever known and it was barely a town at that. He brought his house-raft in on the western side, and docked it against the small frigate that made up the Lower Food Market. Behind him, estuary marshes filled the sky with squawking pelicans. The market smelt strongly of fish, but also of meat, of roasted otter and bird, and of endless spices from the ground. This was where Chang would announce his grand discovery, and find again his place in this floating world.
“You need to rest,” Ji told him when they arrived.
He ignored her. She shrugged and walked away into the market. Only some time later did he realise he should have thanked her.
He bought some grilled fish from a raft nearby and laid it out on his stone table in the sun. He sliced each one open and lovingly rubbed the riata paste into the white flesh. It tasted perfect.
It was a burning hot day and the first customers came to his boat out of idle curiosity:
A woman and her young daughter, holding sweaty hands tight. Chang smiled kindly as the girl jumped onto his raft, while the mother watched warily from the side. His smile turned into a frown as the girl tried a piece of sole. She shook her head violently and pretended to vomit. The two left immediately.
An elderly couple, shaking as Chang helped them down onto the raft. The woman looked a little like his wife. She sampled the triggerfish, while her husband ate the riata raw. Both were kindly and patted him on the back. They also left without buying.
Young men, laughing and preening to each other. They came only to mock as they trampled across his boat, rocking it until Chang had to hold on. A taste, a sneer and they too were gone.
And so it continued in this way. Men, women and children all came to his boat, paused, and left. All reacted differently: some were disgusted, some were confused, some were amused. Some ate it on its own, and some tried it with the fish, and some even smeared it on their own food. Yet all had a common opinion: they did not like, nor would they buy, the strange purple paste.
Towards the end of the day, the crowds dwindled to a few sauntering stragglers, and then the customers were gone, returning to their house-boats where they had family and good food and beer. Chang imagined them in their warm blankets with lanterns swaying on bamboo poles. He saw them laughing and telling stories to each other, and a particular story of a crazy old market man selling a food no-one would ever want.
All around him, other sellers were packing up their wares. To his left was a young woman in a large canoe, head down, writing in a worn-looking book. She looked foreign and her clothes suggested she was not from the estuary settlement. She seemed not to be selling, but rather observing. He ignored her as he set about tidying up his jars and pots.
A pelican landed on his raft with the sun setting. Chang sat quite still and watched it waddle across his wooden floor. The bird spotted him and froze, the two of them staring at each other across the boat. Then it flapped its wings, took the remainder of his fish in its beak and flew into the purple clouds.
Slowly he rose to his feet, untethered his boat from the floating market and let it drift towards the moonlit marshes. He waited until the settlement was out of sight, hidden by fog and gnarled, tangled trees. Only then did he collapse to his knees and place his face in his hands. He fought the urge to cry, trying desperately to suppress the disappointment welling up inside him. Unwanted memories flooded his soul: losing his job as a boatmaker, Yaia dying of malaria, Kane leaving without saying goodbye.
This was a pain to rival those and in his self-loathing and self-pity, it seemed that all of history had built to this loss. The loss of his civilisation and its own self-worth, the loss of his people and their way of life, the loss of his culture and its ties to the sea. The loss of his job and his wife and his son. All of it built to now, and the final, crushing loss that had been waiting for him his entire life. One scripted by devilish gods and handed down with malevolent glee.
The loss of his future, the loss of hope. His dreams crushed like leaves.
The capital lies across the flatlands and behind the mountains, clutching at a different sea. It is made almost entirely from thermoplastics that masquerade as metal and glass. It is a thousand skyscrapers that twinkle under the sun and stars; huge shards of glistening glass that pierce the sky. The walkways between the buildings are a maze of transparent, crisscrossing webs, some horizontal, some near vertical, all filled with people transported across seemingly open air. The vehicles are glass too, spherical and spotless and dazzling, forging a new frontier for their passengers as they flit frantically but seamlessly through the sky. They drive themselves.
The buildings stop before they reach the ground. Beneath them, huge cube-shaped world builders silently mine the land and sea, enormous automatic factories dozens of miles in each direction, locked together to pump electricity and water and food up to the city above. There is no scarcity in the city, no poverty, no crime. There is everything the inhabitants could ever need.
There is a drink called yoon, the most popular drink both in the capital and across the country. It is a sweet, complex, milky drink imbibed throughout the day. Yoon is drunk for breakfast and added to children’s porridge to encourage them to eat. It is drunk at lunch for energy and ideas. It is drunk in the evening over dinners for family and friends, a social drink to be poured in the midst of laughter and song.
There are many types of yoon, both hot and cold. In its original form, it is almost as clear as the city around it. Food scientists enrich it with other flavours and watch it turn vibrant shades of pink and orange and green. Iced cinnamon yoon is a particular treat for young ones, while those that fancy themselves sophisticated may well take it steaming hot with paprika and chilli, sipping it from a chalice as they recline in their towers and watch their world of glass float by. It is said that the president’s favourite yoon is one thickened with honey flour and sprinkled with lemon jelly.
Yoon is sold in every supermarket and provided in every school. It is advertised on each person’s memory chip and on bright billboard holograms that spin and flash through the cityscape by night. It is part of culture, and it is part of history. In a museum dedicated entirely to food, there is a section just for yoon. This section is a large room, and the walls are purple.
Here there is a life projection of the woman who discovered yoon. Every day, thousands of visitors stand in the purple room and watch her talk about the drink. Today there is a small boy with a cap on his head.
“Some credit me with the invention of yoon, but that would be a falsehood. I cannot even really claim to have discovered it, although I was the first to bring it to this land. I found it on an expedition to the Eastern Sea to learn more about the dwindling boat people.
Whilst docked at one of their markets in the dusk, I met a man in the raft next to me. He had invented a strange purple paste that he called riata. He let me try it: it was remarkable and unique, but somehow unpleasant. I told him that it was too dry. He suggested that I add water to it, and let me keep some.
On my journey back over the hills, I was thirsty and I did as he said. Oh, and the difference it made! What was too unusual for this world suddenly fitted right in. It was the most gloriously refreshing and delicious drink I had ever tasted! I turned our horses around and returned to the market.
Three days I spent searching the boats until I found the man and told him of my discovery. He was ill and bed-ridden and very tired, but when I described to him the drink, his eyes lit up with pride. He clasped my hands tight as he told me where I could find the riata tree and harvest its seeds.
The man told me his name was Chang. I asked him for his family name, and he smiled.
He said it was Yoon.”
The woman stops speaking and a voiceover sets the context. “Ms Lana brought riata from the Eastern Sea in 2177, and yoon has now been a popular drink for over 500 years.”
The boy with the cap has watched the projection with interest. Later he leaves the museum with his mother. Outside, a huge open-air boulevard is suspended across the sky, spanning the distance between two spiralling towers. As he walks across the crystal floor, he can look down and see the city disappearing far below him, down to where the world-builders churn out pure white clouds.
It is a beautiful day and colours and light are all around. Both sides of the boulevard are lined with trees, and it is Autumn, and their leaves are purple.
That night, the boy dreams.