On a cool fall day a visiting bald monk, wrapped in a dark brown robe with sandals on his feet, raises both arms toward Heaven and prophesizes with a loud voice: “Before the fading of the stars that shine as bright diamonds in the sky, when the air is still in this dale, a keen ear can catch the melody of eternal ancestors”.
His words are a lie.
Gracing an area where primary Chinese forest once stood, twenty meters of wilderness tidily spreads itself with the dark waters of the Mekong River - a skirt at its feet. The stretch, saved from the rubber plantation for sake of preventing flooding, sprung up to form a dense thicket of light-green bamboo. From a distance, the gracefully curved bamboo tops seem to be bowing in honor.
The stately groves of cypress trees are gone. All that lingers of the old forest are the memories shared by the shaky-voiced old people in the village.
There are no voices now, and only murky forms can be seen. Night is a perfect covering. The dense haze that lowers the temperature of the area also secures it with lack of definition.
From great distances, peasants have left their homes and made their way to the areas covered by foliage. No one speaks. They each move independently to prevent detection. The exact time in the middle of the night is not known. No one has a watch. They leave when they feel led by the Spirit.
Ming Fu, a worker from one of the local rubber plantations, puts on a loose, dark-cotton shirt and baggy pants made of hemp. His wife, soon to birth their child, will not follow him this time. She stays by the warmth of the fire. Flames glow in the sunken pit in the center of their mud and straw house that Ming Fu fashioned himself. Quietly Ming Fu steps out of his house.
It is two miles to the river and his destination, but he must take a longer route.
Once a week before the break of dawn, Ming Fu begins making his way to a well worn path.
He stops and listens. It is only a few more yards from the end of the gently rolling acres of rubber trees to the ticket crowned with high majestic cliffs that tower against the dark sky.
Ming Fu rushes, hunched over, from the safety of the last rubber tree to the narrow trail within the thicket. Then he stops in the shelter of its tall stalks to catch his breath.
Frequent trips down this passageway have endowed him with an ability to negotiate the darkness easily.
Ming Fu doesn’t notice the big chill in the air. He walks with determination keeping his hands out to feel his way - deftly touching the bamboo.
He walks for a long while in the dark. His bare feet are protected by thick calluses well developed before he reached his teens. All local children are expected to do their share of the work in the fields. His limbs, like those of everyone else in the area, are slight and sun baked.
By the sound, he knows when he is close. As he nears the turn off, he hears the splash of a frog jumping in the water below, the steady ripple of the river, and a noisy chorus of crickets nearby. The scent of dwarf lotus floods his senses.
He stops and listens. He gives a soft hoot. A muted hoot from a human voice yards away signals safety. Ming Fu answers with a double call, and then continues to feel his way.
At a break in the thicket he grabs hold of bamboo with each hand and lowers himself gently down a short steep slide. Golden beams of moon light bounce off the large rocks that have been strategically placed in this area.
He is almost there.
Another step and he is plunged back into the shadows; he edges this thin body sideways between several feet of dense stalks and steps into a cleared circle.
He bows. Dark forms sitting on logs stand and bow in return.
Ming Fu knows the truth.
He joins the others singing "Jesus Saves". As their whispered hymn begins to float upward, it is not the timbre of ancestors, but the soft resonance of people who are willing to risk their lives to worship the Lord.
The music is real, and he is a part of it.
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