(Note: I wrote this short story several years ago as part of one of my teaching courses at the college. We'd been given the challenge of "creatively demonstrating" our understanding of one of the core concepts of the course. Although it's longer than a typical blog post, I've been wanting to re-publish it here for some time. For me, it still illustrates some "core concepts" that I hold dear. I wonder if it does for anyone else? )
The dyke was leaking. Then again, it was an old dyke – ancient – and it was always leaking. It’s to be presumed that there had been a time when the dyke that surrounded the village wasn’t crumbling, but that day was lost in the mists of time. Lost there too was the source of the wisdom that caused the original settlers to decide upon building the dyke instead of moving away from the rising waters that daily threatened their survival.
But build it they did -- of stone and mortar.
The most important citizen in the village was the one in charge of maintaining the wall: the dykemaster. A venerated elder, the dykemaster’s task was one that required on-going diligence and an army of strong arms and legs to labor at the task of preserving the dyke. So vital to their survival was this mission that each of the village youths was expected to serve a 3-year stint in the service of the dykemaster, toiling at the wall, and receiving essential education at the feet of the master.
One day, as the dykemaster made his daily round of inspection, one of his charges ran up to him. “We’ve a leak, but no mortar!”
The dykemaster himself was to blame for this. He had only that morning ordered those in charge of mixing mortar to leave off in order that they might help with more pressing work in the rock quarry.
“You’ve no mortar, then use your finger,” he directed. “We’ll have fresh mortar as soon as humanly possible.”
The youth did as he was told.
Being as leaky as it was, the dyke typically sprung several leaks every day, but as luck would have it, on this day there were dozens more than usual. To each of the youths who ran up to the dykemaster, he answered, “Use your finger.”
The dykemaster finished his rounds, just as black storm clouds began to loom over the village. We must shelter those youths from the weather, the dykemaster concluded, after that we will mix more mortar. “Build tents for them,” he commanded. As the youths stood with their fingers in the dyke, others toiled around them, erecting heavy canvas coverings.
Dinnertime drew near. We must feed those youths, the dykemaster concluded, after that we will mix more mortar. “Cook dinner for them,” he commanded. As the youths stood with their fingers in the dyke, while others toiled around them erecting tents, the remaining youths scrambled to cook and deliver dinner to everyone.
By the time dinner had been eaten, it was late and the workers were tired. We must get some sleep, the dykemaster concluded, after that we will mix more mortar. “Sleep,” he commanded those not charged with keeping their fingers in the dyke.
The dykemaster was awakened in the night by reports that many of those with their fingers in the dyke had fallen asleep. We must give those youths a break, the dykemaster concluded, after that we will mix more mortar. “Go and replace them at their posts.”
The dykemaster, now fully awake, could not possibly sleep after this. He foresaw that the morning would bring breakfast. After that there would be more leaks, youths who needed rest, then lunch . . . He needed to get around in front of this process. After several hours of contemplation, he devised a plan.
The next morning, he gathered together those of his charges who could come.
“We are coming upon a time of great hardship and we must each of us take on added weight to our burden. As you are aware, we are tending each leak with a finger. The task of a leak, however, has proved too taxing for but one finger. I will therefore assign 3 fingers to each leak: one to plug the hole, one to tend to the needs of the one plugging the hole and the third will rest. Those not assigned to a leak will serve as cooks.”
“What about the mortar?” one of them asked.
“That will have to wait until our crisis has passed.”
The dykemaster was proud of the way his disciples took on their unusual duties in these unusual times. When a new leak was discovered, he immediately dispatched a team of 3 who plugged their hole, erected their tent, prepared their bed, and initiated communications with the kitchen. The youths were in high spirits, it was fun for them, and the dykemaster took this as a sign that he was doing his job with creativity and flare.
After several days, however, it became necessary to forego lessons altogether as the dykemaster’s remaining troops were sent in threes to take up positions on the wall. Shortly after that, the kitchen staff began to erode, until finally all that could be mustered for sustenance were crackers and carrot juice.
The dykemaster knew it wouldn’t be long before the grumbling began.
It’s time to pro-actively rally the troops, he thought, and set out on a “goodwill tour” of his ever-multiplying outposts. The first thing he noted was how comfortable they had made themselves. Most had hung hammocks or had gathered mounds of soft hay upon which the dyke fingerer could repose. Many of the tents had been either replaced or augmented by wooden walls, some with windows, all with fresh paint. It seems the various outposts had formed alliances with one another and shared work to such an extent that they had time for such things as decorating. One team had already planted a garden in response to the crackers and carrot juice. “Free time” was so rampant that a wide variety of hobbies had sprung up: book clubs had formed, a dance was scheduled, there was talk of a recreational volleyball league . . . The youths seemed happy and enthusiastic.
The dykemaster, as might be expected of a great and wise personage, was horrified. “What has happened here?” he cried. “We’re not here for pleasure, we’re here to work, to strive . . . For god’s sake, it’s a time of crisis!”
The youths to whom he had addressed this diatribe looked up insolently from their game of backgammon and shrugged. “What can we do? We must mind our leak.”
The dykemaster arrived home in a foul mood. How could matters have gone so wrong? He wanted to blame his youths, but in his heart he knew that he had mismanaged the entire business. If only he had made the time for mixing the mortar at the very start.
That, of course, was how he would correct the situation – he would have mortar made at once. He sent word that one of every three was being recalled from the dyke to mortar mixing duty. Word came back, however, that not a single one of them could be spared. Word went out again that they had no choice in the matter. Word once more returned to the effect that should he continue on in this haughty tone, the youths, acting in unison, would remove their fingers from the dyke, which would result in the destruction of the village.
It had come to this.
The dykemaster burnt-out the flame of his outrage, then fell into a state of melancholy reflection. As angry as he was, he had to admit one thing: they were enjoying themselves. He even chuckled at the memory of their devices and admitted respect for their inventiveness and self-motivation – there was just no . . . direction to it. Whatever else they did, they emphatically were not fulfilling the fundamental charge of their existence: they were not, in any way, maintaining the wall. But what could he do about it? He had lost his power to command – without that, how could anything be accomplished?
He paced through the night, then, finally, in desperation, he went to the nearest of the encampments. There he found one of the most senior of his youths – a girl named Sara.
Dispensing with the formalities customary when a great and wise personage addresses a youth, the dykemaster explained his situation as clearly as he could: “We must mix mortar or we will all die. I don’t know what to do.”
Sara thought a moment. “None of us want to die.”
“But you will not mix mortar.”
“That’s because we know that if we do, everything will go back to the way it was. We will live in the dormitories, rising and sleeping by your schedule, doing as you tell us. This is much better.”
“I understand,” said the dykemaster gravely, “but we can’t keep our fingers in the dyke forever. We need mortar.”
“I understand,” answered Sara, mirroring the dykemaster. She consulted with her teammates, then said, “If you let us remain here, living like this, the three of us will mix the mortar to fix our hole.”
Armed with this small success, the dykemaster proceeded from tent to tent saying, “I don’t know what to do.”
Soon the mortar was mixed and the holes were patched. The youths then, through their system of alliances, made sure that they would never again be without mortar.
At first, the dykemaster did not know what to do with himself. As he stood by, he felt helpless, but at the same time thrilled. Never before had he seen his charges so alive. Yet, never before had he felt so useless: he was no longer called upon to direct. The maintenance of the wall no longer needed him; the youths were educating themselves through their hobbies; they had even managed to get more from the kitchen than crackers and carrot juice.
He still felt at sea on the day when the village elders awarded him the honor of “Dykemaster of the Millennium”.
The old dyke still leaked as always, but many thought it did so less frequently than in times past. The youths grew in body and intellect.
And the dykemaster finally came to understand his new role. It was simply to look around and be the one to say, “I don’t know what to do.”