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Tracking through the Rapids


   Though the junk was now apparently safe, for it breasted the smooth,swift water of the second s1uice and was no longer being thrown from side to side, the heaviest work still Remained to be done. I turned to watch the trackers, for theirs was now the heavy work of making many tons of cypress go uphill on a fierceIy resistIng roadway of water. It was a moving sigh horribly depressing, to see more than three hundred human beings reduced to the level of work animals, blindfolded assessed oxen, yet thrilling too, to see the irresistible force of their co-operation, for the three hundred and fifty cloth shoes or their each step up the slope were p1anted in the same moment, and the sad tracbers'cries, Ayah!... Ayah!,' were sung in aYangtze River great unison choir of agony and joy, and the junk did move.

 It moved, however, more and more slow1y, as the last and hardest test of the trachers' Iabor began--heaving the junk over the head of the rapid, over the round, swift crest 0j the sluice. The bow of the junk seemed to dig into the water there. The rope grew taut. The great crowd of towing men hung or a long time unable to move. I saw the cook look down toward the junk, obviously at a Ioss what to do.

  Then suddenly from midstream, from the very center of danger, came a lovely, clear, high-pitched line of song.

  It was Old Pebble. I Iooked out and saw him standing on the deck,himself leaning as if to puII, hurling a beautiful song at the crowd on the bank.
On the proper beat the many trackers gave out a bind of growl and moved their feet forward a few inches, and the bow of the junk dug deeper into the head of the sluice. They took a second, firmer step. And a third, and a fourth.

  I had never heard Old Pebble sing such a haunting melody. I saw that he was In a bind of ecstasy. His face shone in a grimace of hard work and happiness. I remembered my doubts about his credo Of 'slmp1icity', which he had recited to me in our first evening on the river,and I remembered mp distress that such a sturdy young man did not avow personal goals of wealth, love, honor, and fame. Now I saw from his face that this was his life's goal, this instant of work, this moment’s line of song, this accord with his poor fellow men, this brief spurt of useful loyalty to the cranky, skinny, half-mad owner of the junk on which he had shipped, and above all this fleeting triumph over the Great River.

  At Iast the junk raised its head, shivered, and shot suddenly forward into the still water of the pond above the rapids. When it was over, and the junk was pulled up to the loading Platform,OId Pebble was streaming sweat, but he looked very happy.

  I walked down to the river's edge to see what he would say. He jumped ashore and bent down to the river and scooped up double handfuls or the brown water and washed his face, sloshing and snorting like a smal1 boy. I moved near him. He looked up. All he said was, Ayah,this river is a turtle.


John Hersey, A Single Pebble, 1914

Xiling Gorges

The Three Gorges Dam

• Tracking Through The Rapids